Freud created psychoanalysis, giving meaning to symptoms. In his writings Studies on Hysteria (1895d), he continued to investigate the symptom. At that time, psychiatry reduced the symptom of an opaque and incongruous phenomenon of psychic life. Freud focused on the striking and unusual characteristics of the symptom to understand the dynamics of the unconscious and the development of conflicts .
What is Symptom in Freud’s Psychology?
Symptom Concept in Psychoanalysis
The symptom cannot be considered equivalent to a defense, since the defense mechanism is more general and its role less obvious. In addition, defenses work effectively when repression is successful, when projection is obvious, and when projection effects are natural. Likewise, to the extent that neurotic behavior and parapraxes prove useful to the subject, their unconscious causes are not apparent and are ignored.
The symptom is also distinct from anxiety. Anxiety is much louder than the symptom, although it is also closely related to it. Anxiety sounds the alarm that leads from a sense of urgency to the symptom. In fact, the symptom seems to try to extinguish the fire of anxiety, but it lacks the means to achieve this. More precisely, the symptom puts an end to anxiety by organizing a new situation different from the one that triggered the anxiety. Thus, the symptom corrects the inadequate internal discharge of anxiety, offering the psyche other possibilities of connection and representation . The new situation defines the nature of the symptom and indicates its scope. In the end, it is the drive that constitutes the symptom, and that is why there is a distinction by Freud between symptom and inhibition (1926d ).
When repression fails, the drive may break, but repression has enough power to deflect it. Thus, the symptom is formed as a compromise. On the one hand, the compromise concerns the censorship between the unconscious or preconscious and consciousness . At another level, there is a conflict between the different instances, with the superego taking the organizing role. Later, Freud argued that the conflict between ego and id defines neurosis, whereas between ego and reality characterizes psychosis (1924b ).
Thus, the course that the symptom takes always depends on the unconscious . Eventually, the game of affection and representation overcomes repression. This happens with hysterical conversion, which reaches innervation because it marks its own body with an effect that has regressed to its original state as an action. After that, each fantasy is converted into a symptom that is crippling but comfortable. Soon this same process is projected by a phobia and frozen in a representation, which leaves a void of affection that is filled with anxiety (Freud, 1915d, 1915e). Because of the ambivalence of desire and defense, the symptom that the ego has established in a state of “extraterritoriality” (1926d , p. 97) gains ground little by little, as does a foreign army, by which it extends its surveillance beyond the phobic object to any fantastical object that can resonate with it. The obsessive’s defensive rituals become similarly eroticized by invading thought.
Finally, beyond the ego’s boundaries, the symptom can bring relative gain , and people can derive from it what Freud called “ secondary gain ” (1926d , pp. 99-100). For example, the symptom can establish an internal balance in the structural domain from which the person arises or organizes. Such is the diversity of pathologies that can also perform a preventive or repairing function outside of themselves, as when an obsession precedes or follows a depressive episode or a hallucination makes real what mental life can no longer accept.