I hear this question more frequently than I can keep track of. In particular I hear it from those within Christian circles ascribing to the idea that there’s a spiritual realm containing good and evil that influences our lives both positively and negatively. Here are some examples of how this lingo can sound:
I’m having panic attacks, but I wonder if they are actually spiritual attacks.
I notice the red flags in my relationship, but I feel like God’s telling me we should be together.
I know you call what I’m experiencing ‘depression,’ but I think I’m experiencing a ‘dark night of the soul.’
I feel uncomfortable in my workplace and I wonder if there may be demonic forces at work there.
The expressions of this type of experience are endless, but hopefully these examples paint a picture of how it can manifest. It’s a weighty idea as it leaves us wondering whether addressing an issue from a psychological lens will make any difference if the issue is in fact rooted in something spiritual.
So how do we know whether a problem is mental or spiritual?
I have a problem with this question. My problem isn’t necessarily that I don’t believe in an active spiritual realm. If anything, I’ve seen and experienced enough to believe there is far more going on in the unseen than I’ll ever be able to understand.
When I work with clients asking whether their symptoms or experiences are caused by spiritual influences, they’ve often found themselves toiling over this question for a long time. They may have gone to their pastors, prayer ministers, or other healing figures in their church community. Some travel far away where they hope a spiritual mecca might offer the prayer they need to answer this question or to heal. They may spend an endless amount of time poring over the Bible and other texts to determine what the spiritual implications of their experiences are.
By the time someone ends up on my couch, I’m often face-to-face with cynicism, hopelessness, and defeat. Sometimes I can see it in someone’s face: There’s no hope for me because I can’t rid myself of this spiritual issue. For those experiencing religious OCD – also known as scrupulosity – the emotional toil these questions take can become unbearable (more in a future post on the topic of scruples).
What Dr. Marie really thinks
If I’m honest, I don’t claim to know much about the spiritual realm – let alone how it overlaps with mental health. However, I’ve found it most helpful to work from a frame of seeing psychology and spirituality as intertwined in such a way that they cannot be separated. Our spiritual good boosts our psychological health and vise-versa. Something that is problematic for our mental health may also be described as spiritually evil.
I believe the question of whether a problem is spiritually based or psychological when we’re experiencing an issue is moot because the way we respond to the issue tends to be the same regardless. As a rule of thumb, many of our problematic experiences reflect a disruption in truth or our perception of reality. Regardless of whether we label a problem as psychological or spiritual, the solution typically involves being taught or reminded of the truth of the situation and to learn how to live from that reality.
A word on spiritual trauma
My issue with this question comes when we attempt to resolve what we see as a spiritual issue with shame-based solutions:
You’re anxious because you’re not praying enough.
You’re feeling depressed as a consequence of your poor choices.
You’re not able to keep a job because you don’t trust God enough.
These types of statements are forms of bullying set in “spiritual” terms; instead of bringing truth to a difficult situation, they take lies and distort them to sound like truth. For the victim of such abuse, often it feels there’s little room to push back because it can feel impossible to argue with God, the Bible, or faith. Many feel their only options left are to leave the faith or to live in shame.
In my opinion, harming each other in the name of “good” is one of the ugliest types of evil around. This is the core of spiritual trauma – a topic for another blog post another day.
If you believe you may be subject to spiritual trauma, I encourage you to remove yourself from the abusive situation. This process is no walk in the park, as often our abusers are our close community, our family, and sometimes even our own minds. I encourage you to seek help in finding freedom from trauma, whether through a trusted safe person or through the help of a professional counselor.
No matter what happens, I hope you know that you are not alone.