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Religious and Spiritual Experiences & the Bipolar Disorder

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Published on May 13, 2018

Eva Ouwehand, M. Theol. Hospital chaplain Altrecht Mental Health Care, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Research on religious and spiritual experiences and bipolar disorder, Groningen University, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.


Audio text:

This video is about religious experience and bipolar disorder
It shows the results of a research project at Groningen University in the Netherlands.

People with bipolar disorder can have experiences they view as religious or spiritual. Such experiences can make a strong impression on them. They usually occur during mania.
During mania, people experience the presence of God for example, or the presence of a divine reality. Sometimes they feel strongly connected or even united with nature, with humanity as a whole, with the universe or with the divine. Others feel they have an important mission in the world, or think they are an influential religious person. Another experience reported, is the feeling of synchronicity. Nothing is perceived as coincidental anymore.

Such experiences often go hand in hand with manic symptoms. The manic ‘drive’ sometimes ensures that people endlessly immerse themselves in such spiritual experiences, desiring to capture their meaning or to change the whole world. During mania, people can be very sensitive to other worlds and spheres. This can be experienced so strongly that they get lost. Positive experiences can take a turn in frightening ones, for example the experience of dissolution of the ego.

During depression the absence of faith or spirituality is a recurring condition. The beautiful spiritual experiences that were enjoyed during mania have now totally disappeared. People feel an absolute emptiness. Trust and hope are absent. Spirituality plays no or only a minor role and some people feel abandoned by God. If trust indeed is present, then more as a recollection than as an actual feeling. When people need hospital treatment, or are getting medication, this can make them feel cut off their religious experiences. This can also happen when somebody gets depressed, after a manic episode.

For many a quest begins. Are my experiences genuinely spiritual? Or are they primarily a consequence of the disorder? It is often not easy to find an answer to that question. It is not possible to talk with everybody about the subject. People sometimes feel reluctant to talk about religious experiences with their therapist, because the experiences might be seen as pathological. And when you are looking for an answer on the internet, many different and often contradictory explanations can be found.

In the research we have done, people had different reactions to their experiences.

Some people want to distance themselves as much as possible from their experiences. They view them as unrealistic and related to the illness. It is also possible that someone’s partner and family want to prevent the diagnosed patient from getting too much involved in spirituality or faith. This can be a reason for keeping at a distance from such experiences or even for abandoning faith or spirituality all together.

A second group views their experiences as a spiritual crisis. Such experiences are an attempt of the soul to cope with trauma or unfinished business from the past. Therefore this group thinks it is important to pay attention to the meaning of the experiences. They are an expression of important issues in life. The experiences are a chance for spiritual growth, in the view of this group.

The largest group in the study, consists of people who regard their experiences as both authentically spiritual ánd related to the disorder. Such experiences are doorways to a higher dimension, but the disease hijacks and distorts them. Or, for other people, they are very special experiences, but difficult to integrate in daily life when recovered.

Communication about religious experience is important. To talk about its meaning with unprejudiced listeners. Contact with peers who recognize your story because they have experienced similar things can be supportive as well

Many people report that finding a balance between too much and too little involvement in spirituality is crucial. Faith and spirituality have to stay grounded. Some people with a long history of bipolar disorder, reported that their involvement in religious experience in the initial phase of the disease was over the top. Through trial and error they had learned to see the experiences in perspective. To many they remain important experiences which reveal something about the nature of reality and men’s destination in the world.

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