Managing Anxiety Through Faith & Self-Compassion
If you've been following my Instagram or column, you would know that I talk quite a bit about mental illness, specifically depression, as I struggled with depression for a great portion of my teen years. You don't need to have anxiety to have depression but quite commonly, it does go hand-in-hand. If you ask me which is harder to overcome, depression or anxiety, it's a tough question. Anxiety and depression feels completely different from each other although both can make you feel equally as helpless.
- Depression feels eternally cold, miserable and heavy. You're in a continuous state of self-hatred; It's like a slow death. Once you're deep inside it, you start losing the motivation to live.
- Anxiety feels fidgety and uncomfortable. Sometimes it's a gross, twisting sensation in your stomach, other times it's a tightened chest, but the worst for me are the cold flashes. Your heart is beating at a crazy rate and you're overwhelmed by nervousness you can't control. The only thing that can grant you relief is to remove yourself from the situation.
So just imagine depression and anxiety together; I was battling the both of them during my teens. It was like a couple from hell taking residence inside my mind (read more here).
I've come such a long way when it comes to anxiety—I'm significantly better now at 25, than I was 5 years ago. The panic attacks have gone down a lot and I'm just so grateful to be able to reach this point in my life. Alhamdullilah. There's really no secret: self-compassion and faith played a huge part in my journey.
Islam as a foundation for self-acceptance
When I was in the deep end of depression as a young Muslim teen, I didn't get the advice that I truly needed. Words like 'you're overthinking it' or 'just pray' weren't always helpful to a young Muslim who not only had a very superficial understanding of Islam but was conflicted with so many things. I didn't know much about qada' and qadha (pre-destination) nor the human fitrah (natural human inclination to do good).
I went for all sorts of therapies that made me feel better temporarily but then I would feel extremely sad again, not really knowing how to close the gap between the version of who I want to be with who I actually was. I didn't know how to work towards a version of myself which I wanted without hating my current self which I saw as a huge failure.
To Him we belong
What I find beautiful about the human body in an Islamic context is that we believe our bodies do not belong to us, it belongs to our Creator, therefore there is great emphasis on how to treat our bodies with dignity. We don't mutilate it, we don't harm it and we don't allow it to do what Allāh has deemed sinful for us.
There's no concept of 'this is MY body, I can do whatever I want with it.' We say that our bodies are an amanah to us, meaning that we are entrusted to take care of it the way Allāh has instructed us to. When someone dies, we often say innalillah wainna ilayhi rajioon. To God we belong and to God we return. In the afterlife, our limbs will testify against us and come forward as evidence for all that we have done on Earth.
Despite a very basic understanding of my own faith as a teen, being able to comprehend this very simple belief prevented me from doing any harm to it because I knew I had to take care of it.
I'm not entirely sure when I started developing anxiety. I've no idea if it's just something I'm 'born' with or if it's something I developed through stressful experiences but what I know is: it's been a part of my life for the longest time. So much so that it's become a part of me.
(Disclaimer: This is just MY experience and I don't expect anyone to share the same sentiments)
I know many people may find it disempowering to acknowledge their mental illness as being a part of them but to me, it was a step forward in self-acceptance. I started being grateful for the interesting challenges that anxiety presented me with because in the end, this is how Allāh SWT made me and He makes no mistakes.
Being born with a difficult condition doesn't mean I blame God for the limitations imposed on me. It also doesn't mean I accept things as it is and do nothing to improve my situation. Everyone struggles with something but we are given the ability to overcome them. I'm not going to be angry at Him for making me this way but at the same time, because it is a problem, I'm going to do what I can to deal with it because He has gifted me with the intellectual and physical capabilities to do so. Alhamdullilah.
When I started seeing anxiety as something that I'm tested with I learnt to be grateful for it. A part of me believes that had I been born without it, I would have been so arrogant because struggling with anxiety gives me a chance to fall back on Allāh SWT again and again. That reliance on Allāh has made anxiety a rather sweet ordeal. When I struggle, I've to ask for assistance and honestly, all praises due to Allāh.
Self-compassion allows you to work on yourself peacefully
My experience with anxiety, depression and grief taught me that we are unreasonably unkind to ourselves. I mean, really. We preach kindness to others but what about ourselves? To the big, tough cookies reading this thinking self-compassion is a weak approach, I beg to differ—self-compassion isn't about babying yourself.
On the contrary, self-compassion is a powerful tool that can heal the deepest of wounds. It's only by developing a more merciful complex towards yourself that you'll gain the patience to not only deal with your anxiety, but give yourself the supply of courage needed to persistently overcome all of life's hurdles. When you're self-compassionate you allow yourself to fail and grow from it.
In my experience, there is no straight forward, foolproof way to overcome anxiety. So far, I've only been able to manage it and I'm completely happy with that. Managing anxiety is tough; you're going to feel like you're going nowhere a lot of times which is why practising self-compassion is vital. Without it, you'll give up before you can even make progress.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger
You know that fear you have of being in a room full of people? Or even worse, actually TALKING to those people? You're going to have to do that again and again, over a long period of time, until you learn that the fears that you have aren't going to kill you. I know anxiety feels like you're at a chokehold but I promise you, over time, it won't be that way anymore. Biidnillah, you'll reach a point where you give your fears less power.
Will your heart still race when it's your turn to speak? Yes, it will. It'll still feel uncomfortable but instead of being reclusive, not engaging in the necessary human interaction needed to further your career or whatever it is, you'll be able to at least do the bare minimum which is to TRY. And if you fail, you won't punish yourself but instead, respect and cheer yourself on for giving it a go.
TRYING is the most important step to overcoming anxiety—take baby steps. Once you've gained a bit of confidence then try something a bit more challenging.
I'll be honest though: I didn't really do the whole baby steps thing. I dove right in and joined Pandu Puteri (girl guides) to force myself to talk in front of groups of people and interact with people who are very different from me. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach every time I had to speak (even though I recited Nabi Musa's AS doa before every talk).
My 2 years in advertising also gave me the opportunity to to learn how to present ideas to clients. Working helped curb my anxiety quite a lot due to one unforgiving reason: I had no choice! I couldn't chicken out; I just had to do what I was paid to do and not let my team down. So sometimes being pushed to get out your comfort zone can be good practice in overcoming anxiety.
Self-compassion helps you stay in the present
Having anxiety tends to make you live for the future instead of being in the present. Weeks and months can can go by and you would live through none of them because you're always wanting to be in another time and place. Realising that I was wasting my life by forever wanting to be out of an uncomfortable situation, I knew I had to get out of that mindframe.
When you're self-compassionate, you learn to be in the moment even when you're in a situation you desperately want to get out of. When you're forgiving towards yourself, even the scariest of thoughts won't latch on to your mind for long. Everything passes by and you learn to ride every wave of anxiety without drowning.
Self-compassion helps you to appreciate all outcomes
When I started practising self-compassion, I started becoming better at managing my expectations. As a result, I also started accepting ALL outcomes of my efforts.
Don't have any unrealistic or high expectations of how things should turn out. Sometimes, having high expectations for yourself is crippling and makes you turn against yourself when things go wrong.
Ok, self-compassion. Check.
My answer is going to sound ironic at first but you're going to have to get used to what makes you anxious. You know how when you're a kid, and we get really scared, our mums would tell us everything will be ok? It's a lot like that. Facing your fears, fully embracing the rush of emotions that you feel and then experiencing great relief as it subsides. That gush of relief that you're looking forward to after presenting in front of a crowd—that's going to be your reward for overcoming each uncomfortable situation.
I think one of the biggest factors that helped me not take my anxiety so seriously is knowing that no one else does, either! Every one I've ever spoken to about my anxiety, whether it was a colleague or a friend, has always expressed how I'm too hard on myself. The art of self-compassion takes time, believe me, but once you master it, you're opening yourself up to a journey of self-recovery that you've been denying yourself all this while.
...ALL THE BEST!