“Keep Calm and Carry On” – sometimes I feel insulted when I see this phrase. Other times it just makes me laugh out loud and think ‘If only things were this simple’. Last year I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder a.k.a. GAD. I had been working in a very unsupportive environment and was then made redundant. One month later, my husband was also made redundant from his job. This was a stressful time for our little family. As well as worrying about bills that needed paying we also had to come to terms, for the first time, with our country’s labyrinthine benefit system. Having been used to a steady income since university both of us had to learn about serious budgeting in a very short space of time. Despite the hardships we faced, including my own deteriorating mental health, this was a time of blessing for our little family. We took pleasure in knowing that despite sometimes scrabbling around the house for money to buy milk – we had a roof over our heads and love in our hearts.
As usual with stressful situations, it was not until our difficulties had eased slightly that I came to realise I had a problem. By the mercy of Allah (SWT) I found a part-time job working in a rewarding and interesting new role. There are so many aspects to what happened which illustrate how this job was surely a gift from Allah but, suffice to say, I never stopped feeling Allah’s blessings throughout this confusing time. This is a key point I would like to make on behalf of anyone going through a period of mental ill-health because you find a lot of people make terrible assumptions about your state of mind when you mention the dreaded MH. So many friends who thought they were being helpful ended up exacerbating my low mood. I still sometimes find it very hard to discuss my anxiety but when I do manage to fumble through some kind of explanation the response has been, more often than not, less than helpful. Some friends would look at me as if I’d told them I had an infectious disease and our contact from that point onwards would get less and less frequent. Others would feel it their duty to “fix me” and come out with some stock Muslim phrases that were well-meant but only made me feel even more guilty: “This is a test from Allah”; “Try to have more patience”; “Try to think about people who have it worse off than you”. Generally, these phrases sound good and are designed to help one reflect. But to anxiety girl, a.k.a me, all I heard from these phrases were “You aren’t good enough”; “You aren’t a good Muslim”; “You are selfish”. One friend went into detail about how much I had to be grateful for – my supportive husband, my son, my home etc. I reiterate this advice was sincerely given but when handing out this particular piece of advice we tend to forget that this phrase was aimed at people who are constantly looking at what they don’t have.
My problem was not at all that I felt ungrateful or jealous of others or that my life was not good enough. Anxiety is a kind of malfunction in your thought processing. For example, if you are going to cross a road and a car swerves towards you – your brain will send your body a message to respond in a particular way, i.e. to jump out of the way. So normal levels of anxiety help us react accordingly to a perceived threat, which is known as the ‘fight or flight’ technique. With anxiety sufferers this particular thought process has gone into overdrive, meaning that the sufferer will see a perceived threat in everyday situations. Feeling this heightened sense of alert on a daily basis can be exhausting. Alongside this, anxious people tend to jump immediately from scenario A to the worst possible outcome. This can cause a person’s thoughts to spiral downwards quite rapidly to the point where their body is unable to contain this level of stress and results in a panic attack. I used to find it even more infuriating that there is no benchmark for what situation would set me off. I have been sat in the back of an ambulance with my son suffering with Croup and have felt perfectly calm. I have tried to put together an outfit for a party and found myself doubled over on the floor gasping for breath. In short, from my experience, there is no rationality to anxiety whatsoever. One of the hardest things I found was trying to make sense of what was going on. This is because the main resource to do this, i.e. the mind, is the bit that needs some repair work. It’s like trying to run a marathon after twisting your ankle. You cannot rely on your own mental faculties because they have short-circuited.
For me, counselling was a wonderfully healing experience. I found it such a relief to have a professional put a label on what was happening because, for me personally, the inability to express what was going on inside my head was incredibly frustrating and disempowering. Counselling helped me learn a lot about myself and the condition and I would highly recommend accessing this service through your GP. Techniques such as mindfulness and CBT have really helped in the process of re-programming anxious thoughts and developing coping mechanisms. It amazed me to discover how fluidly intermingling some of the ideas in mindfulness techniques are to Islamic teachings. For example, short daily meditations can help centre your thoughts and you are encouraged to be thankful as well as send love to others. How similar is this to the idea of making dhikr and dua? As part of my daily routine I tend to practice the breathing techniques of mindfulness along with a certain dua or dhikr. It is also interesting how a panic attack tends to take you to your knees anyway – as if your body is trying to encourage you into sujood.
Of course, implementing these techniques is not a straightforward cure and it is important to recognize that this is an illness like any other that should not be ignored due to its intangibility. Each person’s journey is different and so is their way of coping with anxiety. The main thing I learned from this experience is that we really don’t know what Allah has in store for us and accepting each day, with an open mind and open heart, is the best way to help heal ourselves.
Hanan Issa is an artist and poet and has started delving into the world of spoken word performance. She is a mother of one pirate monkey and works for her local Council. You can access her blog posts, written at the beginning stages of her diagnosis, at: www.diaryofananxiousgirl.com and you can see and hear more of her work at: www.facebook.com/HananIsCreative