Is it the Dark Night of the Soul or Depression?

Van Gogh's Starry Night

I continue to take classes in Pastoral Counseling, and am learning a lot.

One thing I’d like to share with you is some thinking about the difference between the Dark Night of the Soul and clinical depression.

A lot of times, the two are mixed up in conversation, but really, the two are quite different.

Probably it would be best to start by describing the difference between the two.

Depression is a syndrome marked by the following characteristics, taken from the DSM-IV-TR (the Bible of psychotherapists in terms of diagnosing mental illness and substance abuse):

Criteria describing a Major Depressive Episode

A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning; at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.

Note:  Do note include symptoms that are clearly due to a general medical condition, or mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations.

(1) depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful). Note: In children and adolescents, can be irritable mood.

(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)

(3) significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day. Note: In children, consider failure to make expected weight gains.

(4) insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day

(5) psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)

(6) fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day

(7) feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick)

(8) diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others)

(9) recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide

B. The symptoms do not meet criteria for a Mixed Episode.

C. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

D. The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism).

E. The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement, i.e., after the loss of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than 2 months or are characterized by marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a metaphor for a stage of spiritual growth taken from St. John of the CrossAscent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul

When one experiences the Dark Night, it is a time when one is purged for a closer relationship with God.  Pertinent signs include:

  1. The first is that these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any out of creatures either” (Dark Night, Book I, 9:1). “Creatures” refers to objects in life with which one has a relationship.
  2. The second sign for the discernment of this purgation is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God.” (9:3).
  3. The third sign for the discernment of this purgation of the senses is the powerlessness, in spite of one’s efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination, the interior sense, as was one’s previous custom.” (9:8).

Both are characterized by feelings of listlessness and aridity, with a lack of pleasure.  However, the key difference can be found in Sign #2 of the Dark Night.  Essentially what that states is that one is still focused on God.  One is still feeling that God is up to something, but one is not sure what.  The Dark Night is dry, but filled with an underlying energy and hope–one is still able to do day to day things.  Depression is when everything altogether seems to shut down.  The key set of questions to ask to discern between the two is:  do you still feel energetic and do you feel God is still up to something good?

If you feel you have depression, talk to a competent psychotherapist.  If you feel you have the Dark Night, talk to a competent pastoral counselor or spiritual director.

About Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW, CAS-PC

Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Pastoral Counselor who maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Drexel Hill, PA.
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3 Responses to Is it the Dark Night of the Soul or Depression?

  1. Pingback: Depressive Syndrome » Is it the Dark Night of the Soul or Depression? « Notes from the Couch

  2. jordy says:

    Hello I am still unaware of what I have and not sure what to do. I am 18 years old and a male. I had an awakening experience one day out of nowhere when I was walking from school to the golf course. It was like I was suddenly alive and things I could never hear or see were visible. Also it felt like I was melting away to the other realm. I never considered my self spiritual or anything and I’m not even religious. This event came after I read a book regarding the ego. I suddenly felt no motivation for doing the things I used too, as I suddenly realised there was no right or wrong, so why bother if there Is no right or wrong. After a while my motivation came back and I returned to my previous life. Then a week or two later I read another book called the peaceful warrior in which it mentioned a phase called the dark night of the soul. This summed up what I was feeling pretty good, and the feelings only got worse. I was able to cope in the day but at night id cry for no reason. this went on for a few days and now I am at a point where I have a constant emptiness all the time. Its starting to feel like I have depression, when nothing has really happened to me. I have little motivation for life, my golf and talking to people. I cant talk to my parents as they will think I’m crazy and because we are not religious or spiritual I don’t really have anyone to talk too.
    Thanks, Jordy

    • Good morning.

      I’m glad and also concerned that you had your experience. Clearly it was a stretch of your experience of who you are, which is a good thing. However, you also said that you felt depressed.

      The Dark Night is not quite what you are describing. During the Dark Night you generally feel pretty good, just your spiritual life, for lack of a better word, feels dry and dull. That’s about the extent of it. What you had was not a dry and dull experience, and your other comments about the depression side of things do sound like depression, although I cannot make a diagnosis at a distance.

      You may want to see if there is a pastoral counselor in your area who can help you discern what is happening. They are skilled at figuring out what is a spiritual movement and what is a medical concern. Given what you described, I encourage you to have someone else take a look at it with you, soon.


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