Is my problem psychological or spiritual? (Hint: It’s probably both)

Dr. Jim Langley

As a Catholic psychologist, I have found that secular people resist the idea of their problems being spiritual, while Christians often resist the possibility that our problems are psychological. Why is this? It is an unfortunate part of human nature for us to resist vulnerability. We are afraid of others seeing our weakness, and especially in our Catholic culture, admitting that we are having mental health problems makes us feel particularly weak. I also suspect that for some people, saying that their problems are only spiritual frees them from the responsibility of actually doing something about it. These people may try to just “pray away” their problems rather than strive to take a more active part in their own healing.

Most of us have heard of “defense mechanisms,” which are behaviors we all at times employ to keep unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or situations at bay. For example, you may have heard about “repression,” in which we avoid painful memories by basically forgetting them. In my practice, I’ve found over-spiritualizing our problems to be a defense mechanism many devout and well-meaning Catholics use to avoid the reality that they are just as prone to mental health struggles as anyone else in the world.

We easily forget that we are composites of mind, body, and spirit, so any problem we have in one area almost certainly affect other areas. So, if you are experiencing depression, it of course affects your mind with sadness and negative thinking, but it also affects your body – namely, your brain. But can depression be spiritual as well? Of course, it can; depression affects your own beliefs about yourself and how you see yourself before God. If you are struggling with depression, it will be hard to see yourself as unconditionally lovable, even by God.

A more complicated issue is that the role of the demonic. For the record, my personal and professional opinion is that spiritual warfare is real and takes place on a daily basis. We have to remember that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and that the battleground is in our very hearts. Both over-spiritualizing and under-spiritualizing our problems is dangerous. Father Chris Hellstrom gives the analogy of how infection enters the body. He says that like germs, evil often tries to enter through our wounds. Germs enter in through our physical wounds and demons enter in through our psychological and spiritual wounds. So, true healing consists in renouncing evil, but it also requires us to find work through the wounds that let evil enter in the first place.

On the other hand, we must remember that it is God alone who does the healing. Just as a physician only helps create the conditions that allow for the body to heal itself, a good therapist only helps create the conditions that enable the soul to accept God’s love. Ultimately, both spiritual and psychological growth occur when we are vulnerable. Any moment of healing or conversion in the Bible comes in a moment of vulnerability and docility to God, while any failing takes place in a moment of “hardening of heart.” Contrast St. Paul, who went from a prideful conviction of his own uprightness being “knocked from his horse” at his conversion, going blind, and having to surrender himself in true vulnerability to the sustenance and teaching of Christians, his former enemies.

Of course, these words I offer here only are the tip of the iceberg on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, check out the Hope and Healing conference at St. Thomas More on September 26. You can register for the conference here.

Featured image by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

COMING UP: How can you tell if a problem is spiritual or psychological?

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How can you tell if a problem is spiritual or psychological?

Healing isn’t just a retreat experience — it’s much deeper

Therese Bussen

While it seems that culture still tends to fight the stigma of mental illness, Catholic psychologists say that it is lessening. A giant step.

However, for Catholics, because the spiritual and psychological have so much overlap, distinguishing a problem as a spiritual one or a human one can be difficult — and even then, they’re still very connected. Healing is actually a much more dynamic process, and one that God includes us in through human means.

Healing isn’t just a retreat

“Generally, God uses the normal means for a person to heal. Sometimes, there’s a misconception that healing takes place at a retreat,” said Malise Lagarde Harold, director of the Catholic Counseling Service in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

In her practice, Harold has seen people misunderstand healing and feeling happy. Healing, and growing in happiness, take work, which doesn’t always feel good.

“We can associate healing with feeling good — being happy and feeling good are two different things,” Harold said.

She pointed out the tendency people have to confuse God’s voice in their human emotions, when emotions are just that: part of being human. The negative emotions that people may experience in healing or in making good decisions aren’t a solid indicator of where God wants us to be.

“God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue. When you make good and virtuous decisions and actions consistently, you’ll be happy, but it doesn’t always feel good,” Harold said.

“There’s a huge component of feelings, that, ‘If I don’t feel good, there must be something wrong,’ I think people confuse that. We have to remember that not all pain is bad. Someone can experience pain when he has done something wrong and that pain is a function of a properly formed conscience,” she added.

God doesn’t speak to us through feelings, he speaks to us through the intellect; just because something feels good to them, that’s probably not a good way to confirm God’s voice. True happiness comes by way of virtue.”

True peace is wholeness, but that is not always experienced as emotional peace.

“You might feel terrible, but you did the good and virtuous thing; instead of falling into negative rumination, you chose well,” Harold said. “There’s this week to week, ‘How did we work on that,’ forming habits and ways of thinking. When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“I think it’s important that Catholics understand that we have psychological problems, too, and it’s important to recognize that God uses the normal means of healing,” Harold added.

Spiritual or psychological?

So how can you tell when a problem is more spiritual or psychological? How do you approach it? Do you need a spiritual director, a therapist, or both?

“Spiritual direction is more about where God is working in your life. With psychology, we help people be more aware of how God can help them find healing,” said Dr. Jim Langley, a licensed psychologist at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

Dr. Langley said that often, it’s best to have a spiritual director as well as a therapist — and sometimes, they may even work together. Especially when the line between the two is overlapping.

But there are ways to tell which is which, Dr. Langley said.

“What makes distinguishing [spiritual from psychological] is that evil can mimic psychological symptoms, when really the core issue is something spiritual. But the more common case, it’s two sides of the same coin. More often than not, they need both spiritual and psychological healing,” Dr. Langley said.

When you’re mentally healthy, there’s more room for grace because grace builds on nature.”

“Evil gets into our emotional wounds, that’s the most common one,” Dr. Langley added. “[But] if someone’s accessing the sacraments and deliverance prayer, and [it doesn’t go away], there’s a psychological problem that needs to be dealt with first.”

He also said that spiritual issues tend to be contained into one area of a person’s life, whereas psychological problems “affect them across the board.”

Like Harold, he stressed that healing best takes place in both realms — but it’s usually not a miracle cure.

“In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it,” Dr. Langley said.

Seeking help

Both Harold and Dr. Langley agreed that many people wait too long to get psychological help — and that these issues can be healed with the right treatment.

“I think when you have a problem, and nothing else has worked, and it’s still there, they’re waiting until they can’t feel that way anymore, they should get help sooner,” Dr. Langley said.

Some of the most common issues people should seek help for are anxiety, depression, grief work, trauma, marriage and family counseling, as well as two issues that are more common than people realize: perfectionism and pornography.

Perfectionism can become a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or scrupulosity, said Dr. Langley. And therapy for pornography, along with spiritual help, can treat the underlying emotional wounds that led a person to the addiction in the first place.

In order to address a spiritual/psychological wound, the first thing you need is God’s grace. And he also gives you the courage to do something about it. A huge part of healing is you participating in it.”

“It’s hard because that’s a very taboo thing. People mention it at pulpits, and yet, people are so reluctant to get actual help. It’s a huge issue. Psychology is pretty darn good at dealing with these issues,” Dr. Langley said.

There’s no shame in therapy, and it’s something Catholics should seek to better live their vocation.

“Counseling can help individuals, married couples, and families to live their vocation to love more fully. This is certainly true for persons experiencing addictions, compulsive behaviors, grief and loss, and difficulties coping with life’s stressful events,” said Dr. Linda Montagna, executive director of Regina Caeli Clinical Services.

There’s also no shame in medication when it’s necessary; however, Harold suggests that it be used with more severe cases of mental illness.

“Research shows that medication for depression, for example, is no better than a placebo. It is a bit like a Band-Aid. The problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the cause of both anxiety and depression. Changing the perspective on the issue [that causes someone anxiety or depression] will remedy the disorder,” Harold said.

“Medication has a place, though, and should be considered for the more severe cases of mental illness where potential harm, injury or death come into play or those psychotic states which can benefit from some chemical stabilization.”

For more information on St. Raphael Counseling, visit straphaelcounseling.com/mdesterrestraphaelcounselingcom. For more information on Regina Caeli Counseling, visit ccdenver.org/reginacaeli.