Why Words Are so Important in Psychiatry

Why Words Are so Important in Psychiatry

As reviewed in a past article, the field of Psychiatry is unique among medical specialties. At present, medical technology has yet to provide adequate imaging or laboratory testing that would allow for more objective assessment of a patient’s symptoms and concerns. A person with chest pain, fatigue and a racing heartbeat can rest assured that a carefully designed testing protocol will clarify the nature of the problem. Cardiac enzymes, electrocardiogram, chest x-ray and even cardiac catheterization will provide objective evidence to either rule-in or rule-out a cardiac event. Or the severe sore throat that makes swallowing difficult can be objectively clarified by obtaining a throat culture and consequently help the physician chose an antibiotic if indicated.

So how to proceed with such limited biomedical test resources? The art of listening is the answer. Listening will not be successful unless the patient knows that he/she can freely tell their story. First, the patient needs to hear a simple question. “How can I be of help?” After their reply the telling of their story is most important. For this to be successful there needs to be an open and accepting attitude that promotes this storytelling.

Once the story begins to unfold it is often necessary to backtrack and clarify aspects of the story. The words that the patient use become critical. What one individual means by the word “anxiety” may be quite different from that of others. I have discovered that behind the initial complaint of “I am anxious” will often be a core depressive illness that has an anxiety component. It is not uncommon for major depressive illnesses to contain a whole host of anxiety symptoms.

What of the individual with a true primary anxiety disorder. It is not sufficient to accept the word anxiety at face value. That is because anxiety is a more complex disorder and cannot be explained by a single word. Simply speaking, anxiety can be best understood by two of its components. One is best described as “somatic” or physical. Symptoms can include rapid heartbeat, sweating, gurgling stomach, headaches, tight muscles, shortness of breath etc. This individual is persistently or episodically physically uncomfortable and restless. They feel like they do not have control over their bodily sensations.

The other major component of anxiety is more mental or “psychic”. Such individuals spend excessive time with non-stop worrying. They get stuck with “what if this and what if that” thinking. They ruminate. They cannot turn off their brains. Sleep becomes difficult because of a busy head, Their thinking often is catastrophic, taking their worries down a path much farther than would be based on the current situation. Catastrophic thinking fuels the rumination and a vicious cycle ensues.

I am making a big deal of such language because treatment is often influenced by the specific type of anxiety. There are different medications to address somatic anxiety than that of psychic anxiety. Psychotherapies also differ depending upon the clarification of the anxiety explanation. So this is much more than a semantic intellectual exercise.

It is then most important to clarify the context of the individual’s symptoms. The goal is to try to determine how much the person’s difficulties are due to a reaction to a life situation. I have reviewed in past articles the difference between a core biologically-based psychiatric problem that definitely requires medication, a life based problem that would benefit from talking therapy and the hybrid situation in which a life stress induced problem triggers an underlying biological response that would require a combination of both types of treatment. One cannot get answers to such questions unless the dialog between physician and patient allows for a careful analysis of their story.

I have found that there is an added benefit of this approach. When a patient clearly knows that their physician is carefully listening and actively asking questions to clarify the specific aspects of their problem, a stronger therapeutic alliance develops. All too often I hear patients tell me that they were frustrated in the past with their doctor because they felt that he/she was not listening to them. This is so unfortunate because listening is a fundamental and easy process. Teasing apart the meaning of the words used in the story can be more challenging. Once the patient understands the importance of words, they can better appreciate the treatment plan and thus actively participate as a partner in the therapeutic process.

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