We tend to think of depression in purely natural terms, a condition that can be treated solely with medication or counseling or both. This is often true, but there may be more factors at work. Since we believe the person is both body and soul, it is possible to have spiritual causes at work as well as physical/psychological ones. Fr. Spitzer explains a few possible causes of depression in the video below.
What is Depression?
Not all sadness is depression. We all go through times of unhappiness. We may be sad, grieving for a loved one, or going through a time of uncertainty and upheaval. Depression occurs when we are unable to get out of this state and physical and psychological symptoms persist. Depression is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:
“A common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.”
Common symptoms include:
- Persistent sad or “empty” mood
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Appetite changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Aches or pains without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease with treatment
The symptoms of depression can vary – some experience many or all of these symptoms while others do not. The best way to address depression is to tackle the physical/psychological causes first, and then explore the possibility of spiritual causes.
Physical and Psychological Causes
First things first: make sure to see a doctor to check for any physical causes. A blood test and other indicators can detect any imbalances or deficiencies that may be at work and proper medication can often provide some relief. Anti-depressants are a common prescription that have helped many people with chronic depression.
Another source of depression may be sheer stress. The mind has a certain amount of mental energy we exert to take in information, make decisions, and communicate with others. A long, stressful period of time uses up a lot of mental energy, leaving us tired and worn out with no end in sight. This may be alleviated by medication and/or counseling prescribed by a medical professional.
Another cause of depression could be from a traumatic event that your mind is attempting to deal with. A trained therapist can help you safely examine your past and address any of these issues in a healthy manner.
A person who has moved away from God and a healthy prayer life may feel a certain kind of depression that comes with a lack of the transcendent. Fr. Spitzer often calls this “existential anxiety”. It refers to the absence of the sacred in modern nonreligious people which introduces a heightened anxiety about existence, meaning, and reality. It comes from “the absence of things yearned for” – that is the absence of the transcendent which we desire implicitly or explicitly (for more on this topic check out The Anxiety of “Non-Religious Man”). It may help to renew commitment to a healthy and fulfilling prayer life.
Another possible spiritual source of depression could be from unrealistic expectations that we set to make ourselves worthy of love. If we are constantly working on tasks to make God love us (self-inflicted penance, unrealistic fasting, adding on hour after hour of prayer) then we aren’t trusting in that love in the first place. The idea that we are unworthy of God’s love is false. If there is someone or something telling you that God will only love you if – don’t listen. God wants us to follow the commandments and to do His will so that we will be with Him in heaven, but He loves us unconditionally.
Though not technically depression, there is one more source of desolation called the dark night of the soul that shares many symptoms with depression. The dark night of the soul typically occurs to those who are in a very advanced stage of the spiritual life. It has been documented by saints such as St. John of the Cross (who wrote extensively about it), St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Paul of the Cross. In his article, Fr. Spitzer elaborates:
As St. John of the Cross indicates, the “dark night” is yet another form of suffering – experienced by only a few truly holy and loving people – given by the Lord as a stage of final purgation to help purify Level 4 love of any remaining imperfections – residual attachments, aberrant affections, and spiritual pride. It may seem bewildering that the Lord would (lovingly) cause the most loving people to experience emptiness, darkness and profound loneliness in order to complete their purification in love. To be sure, He does not do this with the vast majority of people – even those who are very advanced in holiness and love; yet, He does do this for a select few whom He knows can endure it and benefit from it.
If you or someone you know if suffering from depression, talk to a M.D. and/or psychologist about different treatment options, and consider speaking to a spiritual director as well. For more information on depression, see this guide from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Alienating as it feels, know that you are not alone. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the nation. We at the Magis Center keep you in our prayers.
Lindsay Rudegeair is Managing Editor of the Magis Center blog.