Sometimes I wonder if our ancestors experienced the same levels of stress and anxiety we experience today. It seems as if high anxiety is a mark of living in modern times where we are aware of and on guard against every microbe, every fanatic, every state that holds the potential to destroy us. Maybe I am romanticizing the lives of our ancestors’ as less anxiety riddled.
But I can’t help but think how much fear and stress we are sold on a daily basis that has never before been the case. If you don’t buy “x” product, you will be unhealthy and death will be eminent. And if you aren’t vigilant about “y” virus, it will infect and kill you. If you don’t fear “z” country, they will attack your homeland. And on and on.
Most of us are in a state of heightened and sustained stressed and anxious, and at our capacity to bear all of it.
So how can we, as Muslims cope? What can be done when the reality (beyond marketing ploys to part us from our money, encourage us tune into a certain news networks, or sell us a certain political stance) is that we live in a world where bad things happen, suffering exists, and we have to face these facts?
The amazing thing about Islam is that it affirms the harshness of reality and gives us comfort about it at the same time. It teaches us a balance between tying our camel–or facing problems head on– and trusting in Allah– or not obsessing over what we can’t control.
There are many, many ways to cope with anxiety and stress within the Islamic framework. Here are four that I have found work miracles in reducing stress and anxiety in my own life:
1- Understand Suffering
Watching reports of horrify injustice, natural disasters, and political upheaval can drive any sane person to an anxious state. But we have to understand that suffering has a role to play in this world.
When was the last time you met or heard of someone with wisdom and peace who never struggled or worked for anything? When was the last time you met or heard of someone ungrateful and headless who never struggled or work for anything?
Those who have attained wisdom and peace are often those who use exceptional suffering; and they used it as a tool to learn, grow, and effect great change.
Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, every prophet: these were all people who approached suffering (their own and others’) as something to learn from and an opportunity to do good.
This is to say that if we face suffering with wisdom, we can see it as simply an opportunity.
2- Focusing on Others
Once we understand that suffering exists in the world for a reason, we can start to see it as a job offer. Allah Almighty has appointed us to be moral agents in this world, to be activists toward the betterment of society.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:
Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith. (Muslim)
Philanthropy is a fantastic antidote to anxiety and stress, even if that anxiety and stress is over our own personal lives. Volunteering and giving to others allows us to put things into perspective.
The Prophet said:
Do not look to those above you, lest you view the favors of Allah as trivial. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Understanding and helping to alleviate the plight of those with less than us, when done in tandem, can alleviate anxiety and stress by allowing us to feel like we have done our part and knowing we will be rewarded no matter what the outcome.
3- Knowing Allah
Similarly, understanding that there is a higher power who is in control of the universe and everything in it can offer solace to someone who feels stressed by our limited control. Allah says in the Quran:
Do they not see that Allah-He Who created the heavens and the Earth and was not wearied by creating them-has the power to bring the dead to life? Yes indeed! He has power over all things. (Quran 46: 33)
This is the amazing balance that Islam affords us. We do what we can from our efforts and feel satisfied in knowing that the results of our efforts are from Allah. And we cannot make things happen if they are not the plan of Allah and we should feel no anxiety or heart ache if the plan we have does not work out.
If our part, or effort is put forth, we can let go of anxiety and let God do His work. Even if we can’t see God’s wisdom in His plan now, we know from the Quran that:
[…] Allah is the best of planners. (Quran 8:30)
4- Maintaining an Islamic Routine
Creating a routine has long been the advice of medical professions in combating stress and anxiety. But for much longer than that it has been the instruction of Allah:
And seek help through patience and prayer; and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]. (Quran 2:45)
The routine of the five daily prayers that Allah has asked us to establish is the best routine. It can be anchor points in our day where we leave all the stress and anxiety behind; and we give ourselves over to Allah, our Creator, the One Who is in control of all things.
Prayers can and should be points in our day when we do to complain to Al Qaadir (القادر) The All Able; to seek help from Al Mujib (المجيب) The Responsive, The Answerer; to moor our hearts to The Eternal.
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)