Mood Disorders and the Spirit

I was inspired to write and make this post because of the series over at By Common Consent on Mormons and Mental Illness.

I’m a graduate student in my late 20s who’s suffered from bipolar disorder since my early 20s. I have no formal training in psychology, but one of my academic interests is psychology and emotion in 20th century American culture (one of my specializations is cultural studies). Typically I look at mood disorders and emotions as cultural and social phenomena (as was perhaps evidenced by my last post on this blog), but I thought I’d temporarily suspend that avenue of thought and explore some thoughts on mood disorders and spirituality that stem from my own experiences.

Those who suffer from mood disorders (or who have watched loved ones suffer) know how difficult it can be to access God, feel the spirit, etc, when one’s disorder is not under control. Depression is a disease that causes immense despair and/or numbness, and often leaves the sufferer feeling cut off from God. Mania leaves its sufferers with racing thoughts and feelings, and often suffuses their lives with exhilarating delusions of grandeur rather than the comforting, affirming touch of the spirit.

One aspect of this phenomenon that really interests me is what we learn about emotion and the spirit from people who have these kinds of experiences. The spirit can touch our lives in many ways. We learn in D&C 8:2 that the spirit can speak to both our mind and our heart. While there is often a lot of discussion in church circles on what makes feeling the spirit different from other emotions and intellectual revelations (for instance, how do the emotions you feel when listening to a moving musical performance differ from a spiritual experience?), and I do think we need to examine the potential differences, in this post, I’m more interested in the commonalities. While spiritual experiences can differ from other emotional experiences in ways that can be difficult to express, I believe that God works through our thoughts and emotions to touch us with the spirit and his love.

Now enter into the equation mood disorders such as depression. “Mood disorder” is a term that doesn’t really encompass the totality of the experiences of its sufferers. These disorders are illnesses that affect both one’s cognition and emotional state (as well as other bodily processes such as appetite, sleep, etc). On the emotional side they can cause intense emotional pain, guilt, or even an absence of emotion (or, in the case of mania, intense feelings of euphoria or agitation). On the cognitive side, depression can cause a lack of creativity, difficulties in concentration, slowness in processing information, obsessive thoughts, etc. Because of these limitations, it becomes difficult to access the spirit; because one’s emotions and cognitions are so out-of-whack, it becomes difficult for God to inspire us in our minds or in our hearts.

I find myself constantly struggling with figuring out what feelings to trust: the church teaches us to trust our feelings, because the spirit is often equated with “feeling” (we “feel” a burning in our bosom, we “feel” twinges in our conscience when we sin, etc). However, mood disorders teach you that you shouldn’t trust your feelings: people with bipolar disorder who feel that they are God’s chosen servants aren’t necessarily so, people with depression who feel like they’re the most worthless people on the planet aren’t necessarily so, etc.

I do think it’s important to ask how one learns to trust the feelings that come from God while denying the feelings associated with the disorder. At the same time, I think the issue is more complicated than mere differentiation between feelings. Drawing lines between the Spirit and the disorder doesn’t look at the ways that we can experience both at once (or one through the other). For example, feeling the Spirit can affect my base mood level, and distorted cognitions and emotions change the lens I use when thinking about God’s answers to my prayers.

It’s important to not only consider how to distinguish between feelings, but to think about the general messiness and interconnectedness of different feelings. What do mood disorders and their effect on spirituality tell us about how God works through our cognitions and emotions? (What does it mean that when we’re emotionally and cognitively screwed up, it becomes much more difficult to access God and His love?) What can mood disorders teach us about spirituality more generally? How are other spiritual states that are linked to emotion (faith, hope, charity) affected by mood disorders, and how do these spiritual states affect mood disorders and our other emotions more generally?


  1. Thanks for this post, s. Great questions.

    I still have lingering effects from a particularly bad case of postpartum depression (seems to get worse with each child). The numbness, the blackness, and despair, combined with some of the other feelings I have expressed on other threads here, have caused extended periods of being unable to feel God’s love for me. Sure, I could look all around me and SEE the evidence of his love, but my heart is often closed off. Combine that with childhood abuse, and you could call me a classic case.

    One place I have found an outlet for my feelings and an inlet for spiritual nudgings is my dreams. I have been very interested in dreams for some time now. One idea about dreams that I read was that our dreams are in some way more real than our waking “reality.” Our consciousness filters in and filters out according to how we think we need to be feeling, acting, thinking, etc. Our dream state, and particularly our emotions in the dream state, are unfiltered by the conscious mind (and to some extent, a mood disorder), and as such can be clues to our true needs, desires, and feelings as well as “messages” that our conscious mind filters out but the subconscious picks up on. The catch is that dream narratives are played out in symbols, which are often personally tailored (but also resonate from the human collective consciousness, such as mythology, etc.). As I pay attention to and learn some of the symbols in my dreams, I have found that sometimes there is a spiritual message for me that I was unaware of in my waking state.

    Of course, not all dreams “mean” something–many are just a jumble of the day’s or week’s events. But I’m becoming more convinced that sometimes a particular dream can convey a spiritual moment or message, unfiltered by a mood disorder.

  2. Interesting point about dreams, Idahospud. I recently read a book called The Promise of Sleep that said something similar. The author reviewed positions of some of his colleages in sleep research who claim that dreams are just random neural firings, etc., but he concluded that while the activity content of dreams (what we think we’re doing in the dream) isn’t real, the emotional content (how we feel) is real. Our brains are engaged during dreams even if our bodies aren’t.

    So I find it fascinating that you’ve found that your dreams are experiences that can somehow bypass all the difficulties of your consciousness. It makes sense that they might.

  3. Idahospud, I can definitely identify with having a more difficult time accessing God’s love when I’m depressed. That’s cool that you’ve been able to find comfort in your dreams. My dreams are almost always stressful (and the more distressed I am, the more stressful they are). I’ve definitely noticed the emotional connection thing that you and Ziff are talking about, though I’m not sure what to do with the fact that I don’t remember the last time I had a pleasant dream. 🙂

  4. The questions you raise are ones I’ve really struggled with. I think that one of my biggest challenges has been to differentiate between what I might call “neurotic” and “legitimate” or “productive” guilt. The message I absorbed growing up in the Church was that guilt is a communication from God that you’re doing something wrong, and it took me a long time to even be open to the possibility that all guilt isn’t necessarily from God.

    One criterion that has helped me make judgment calls in this area is that I’ve noticed that God seems to focus much more on the future than on the past; the messages I hear from him aren’t along the lines of “well, you sure messed that one up, you moron,” but rather, ” I see you as a better person than this, you can change, you can do things differently.” If my guilt is leading me into a pit of despair, it’s a good guess that it’s not divinely inspired.

    But even being able to see that, I have to admit that when feelings of intense guilt hit (which for me are often at the core of depression), I still find it extremely difficult to believe in that moment that they aren’t a condemnation from above. I so easily get lost in my own convoluted thoughts and can’t find my way back out. In dealing with that, I’ve really come to believe that God works through other people to reach us when we are in places where we find ourselves unable to hear him directly.

  5. Thanks for this post, S. You and the commentators raise some excellent and difficult questions I’d love to see addressed more often, from both psychological and religious perspectives. I haven’t seen much about the explicitly religious content that mood disorders so often have in religious people, such as the issues of guilt Lynnette describes and the attribution of guilt to God’s wrath and punishment. When we’re trained to examine our feelings and consciences as sources of religious knowledge, mood disorders so often play out in religiously devastating terms.

  6. Wonderful thread, wonderful posts. That sense of different-ness haunts me all the time. I’ve finally just quit caring, let them throw me out, I’m being myself.

    It’s so freeing. I can only be what I can be. Their reaction: their problem.

  7. Lynnette, I agree it is difficult to navigate different kinds of guilt. I find myself doing something similar–if it seems to be a feeling of remorse (I like that word better than guilt) that motivates change and helps me move forward, then I assume it’s from God. If it sends me into “a pit of despair,” as you put it, I assume it’s probably not from God.

    Eve, I definitely agree with you, and I think we need more of a language for this too. I remember during General Conference a few years ago one of the speakers was talking about guilt and he said something about how guilt can sometimes come as a result of mental illness (and my ears perked up), but then he went on to say that in the vast majority of the cases guilt comes from sin. Not only do I think church leaders and members underaddress the amount of guilt that stems from things like mental illness, we don’t have a language to talk about the phenomenon that you described–how religion and psychological problems get tied up together in really problematic ways.

    Thanks, annegb. I agree that it’s a very freeing feeling to be emotionally honest and not care about feeling different.


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