Ustadha Sarah Sultan: 7 Tips to Overcome Anxiety and Worry
While in a small boat in the middle of the ocean, the sky suddenly darkens and the winds start to pick up. Suddenly, a downpour falls heavily onto your head and shoulders, filling the tiny boat with water. As the boat capsizes, you find yourself surrounded by the seemingly never-ending ocean. You feel completely vulnerable and unprotected. As you try to get your bearings, a wave crashes over you, submerging you under water. Then another. Then another. You can barely catch your breath and you’re sure you’re not going to make it out of there.
Anxiety and constant worrying can feel like you’re drowning in a sea of never-ending problems. You may be able to gasp in a breath of air but soon you’re pushed beneath the surface again, nearly unable to stay afloat feeling the weight of so much worry heavily overtaking your mind. Despite feeling powerless, realize that you can regain control of your life and your anxiety.
A certain degree of worry and anxiety exists in everyone and is completely normal. Everyone worries at times. However, for some people, anxiety can take over their lives. Every instance and situation is viewed in the direst way possible, which can lead to a multitude of physical and mental health issues. Constant worry and anxiety can impact our productivity and can also be taxing on the people in our lives, which can strain relationships. This is why the Prophet Muhammad (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) used to make a du’aa seeking refuge from worry saying, “Oh Allah! I seek refuge in You from worry and sadness, from weakness and laziness, from miserliness and cowardice, from being overcome by debt and from being overpowered by men.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
7 Steps to Reduce Anxiety and Worry:
1. Identify initial signs that you may be spiraling toward drowning in a sea of worries
Pay attention to your mind and body during calm and stressful times. When things are going great, what thoughts go through your mind? What do you tend to say to yourself during those times? You might be able to notice small things like the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree when you’re feeling positive and calm. Feel the ease in your muscles and notice the rate of your pulse. Compare this to times when you are struggling. Perhaps your thoughts tend to be more negative or you’re more critical of yourself. You may find yourself thinking things like, “I have so much to do and there’s no way I can accomplish it all.” or “I say the most awkward things when I’m around people.” Do you notice tension anywhere in your body? Do you start to feel warm or notice your heart racing? These signals will occur before your anxiety and worry get out of hand so knowing these signs can protect you from a downward spiral.
2. Accept that anxiety levels go up and down
When you are overcome with worry and anxiety, you may feel as though things will never get better. You may wonder whether there will ever be a time without panic in your future- whether you’ll ever get to breathe easy again. Remember, your anxiety cannot hurt you. Our minds often trick us into thinking that the discomfort we feel due to anxiety is dangerous. Many of my clients experience panic attacks during which they literally feel as though they are dying. The feeling of your chest constricting, your breathing wavering and your body freezing is terrifying. Despite how scary these sensations are, one of the proven techniques that helps a person overcome a panic attack quicker is acceptance. When struggling with feelings of anxiety, one of the most powerful ways to diminish the control that these sensations have on you is to accept them. It seems counterintuitive because you brain and body basically scream, “I have to get rid of this feeling! It’s horrible!” However, once you are able to acknowledge that it cannot hurt you and that it will pass, anxiety loses some of its grasp on you. Remember, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) promises us ease as He (subhanahu wa ta’ala) says, “For indeed, with hardship comes ease.” (94:5)
3. Pay attention to your triggers and try to avoid them
The example of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is the greatest and the best that we can try to emulate. One thing you will notice as you read the Qur’aan is that Islam is a preventative religion. For example, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) says, “And come not near to unlawful intercourse. Verily, it is a fahishah (i.e. anything that transgresses its limits; a great sin), and an evil way.” (17:32) Likewise, we can protect ourselves from drowning in a sea of worries when we realize the situations that tend to trigger our anxiety. Do you tend to panic when you’re running late? Do your best to allow yourself extra time to get ready before you have to be at an appointment. Do you tend to get more anxious when you’re exhausted? Try to go to bed earlier to allow yourself to awake refreshed and ready to face the day. Do you tend to feel anxious every time you speak with a certain friend? Try to minimize your contact with this person, particularly if the effects of this friendship are toxic to your mental wellbeing.
4. Transform your thought process
Realize that your worries are often a “false alarm.” When feeling stressed, we tend to catastrophize and imagine the worst-case scenarios for every situation. A mother of a newborn endures very little sleep, fluctuating hormones and a new world filled with unknowns. As soon as her baby sneezes, she wonders whether this is an indication of a serious health issue, which leads to further worry and anxiety. Gradually work on replacing your worries and anxiety-provoking thoughts with more realistic and healthier ones. This gives you the ability to control your anxiety level, which is empowering. Positive thoughts make us better able to deal with life’s challenges. Imagine how empowered you can feel if you view the things you worry about as opportunities rather than insurmountable obstacles! Remember the saying of the Prophet (sala Allahu alayhi wa salam), “The affair of the believer is amazing in that it is always good for him, and this is true only for a believer. If something joyful comes to him he gives thanks, and that is good for him. If something harmful comes to him, he is patient, and that is good for him.” (Muslim)
5. Learn and practice some anxiety-reducing techniques
There are a variety of techniques that can help to reduce anxiety during moments of stress. Choose the ones that work best for you and continually implement them; gradually, they will become almost automatic insha’Allah. Knowing that you will be able to regain control over your worries during an anxiety-filled time can be very calming and empowering. Some of my personal favorites techniques include: making du’aa, deep breathing, taking a walk in a natural setting, mindfulness and visualization (i.e. imagining myself in a peaceful and safe environment that makes me calm and content). There are so many supplications the Prophet (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) taught us to use during times of worry and anxiety, since this is a universal issue, so find the ones that most resonate with you. One that never fails to lighten my heart is the following: Ibn Mas’ud reported that the Prophet (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) said, “If any servant of Allah afflicted with distress or grief makes this supplication, his supplication will be accepted: ‘O Allah, I am Your servant, son of Your servant, son of your maidservant. My forehead is in Your hand. Your command concerning me prevails, and Your decision concerning me is just. I call upon You by every one of the beautiful names by which You have described Yourself, or which You have revealed in Your book, or have taught anyone of Your creatures, or which You have chosen to keep in the knowledge of the unseen with You, to make the Qur’an the delight of my heart, the light of my breast, and remover of my griefs, sorrows, and afflictions‘.” (Ahmad & Ibn Hibban)
6. Live in the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future
Ibn al-Qayyim (rahimahullah) said, “Your attention must be directed to your life in the present – the time between two times. If you waste it, then you have wasted the opportunity to be of the fortunate and saved ones. If you look after it, having rectified the two times – what is before and after it – then you will be successful and achieve rest, delight and ever-lasting bliss.” We are often so overcome with worry about the past and anxiety about the future that we completely miss out on the present. Abu Hurairah (radi Allahu ‘anhu) reported that the Prophet (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) said, “A strong believer is better and dearer to Allah than a weak believer, and there is good in everyone, but cherish what gives you benefit in the Hereafter and seek help from Allah and do not lose heart, and if anything (in the form of trouble) comes to you, don’t say, ‘If I had not done that, such and such thing would not have happened,’ but say, ‘Allah has ordained it so, and whatever He pleases He does,’ because ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ open the door for Satan.”(Muslim) You cannot control what will happen within the next hour nor can you change what happened during the last hour but the present moment is within your grasp. Rather than focusing on “what-ifs,” focus on “what is.” Pay attention to the blessings surrounding you- the feeling of the breeze on your face, the taste of the tea on your tongue, the sound of birds chirping nearby. When you choose to be mindful of the blessings that surround you in every moment of everyday, you will naturally start to find that you tend to feel calmer and less bombarded by anxieties about the past and future.
7. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst
There is something very powerful about facing your fears. Sometimes, we push the worst-case scenario to the back of our minds, afraid of facing the possibility that something so scary could actually happen. However, this just promotes anxiety to arise at inopportune times. What is that fear that you constantly sweep under the rug? Is it a question about whether your marriage is worth saving? Or what would happen if you don’t get into medical school? When we take the time to explore our fears and how we would handle such a difficult situation, the worst-case scenario is no longer so anxiety-inducing. While we prepare for the worst, we also hope for the best by putting our trust in Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). Remember that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is capable of all things so never cease in making du’aa to Him. Anas said that when the Prophet (sala Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam) was faced with a serious difficulty, he would always supplicate, “Ya Hayyu, ya Qayyumu, bi-rahmatika astaghithu (O the Living, O the Eternal, I seek help in Your grace).” (Tirmidhi) Also, striving to do everything for the sake of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) can be very calming. By finding fulfillment through a greater purpose- when you make your intentions for
the sake of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala)- even if things don’t turn out perfectly, your ultimate goal in pleasing Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is still achieved. That way, you will worry less and feel less anxious about any mishaps or obstacles that come your way insha’Allah.
We all experience anxiety at times; it’s a universal emotion that makes us human. However, our lives don’t have to be overtaken by them. You can manage your anxiety and overcome your worries. Rather than drowning in a sea of worries, trust in Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and trust in the abilities He gave you as you learn to stay afloat while riding the waves that come your way.
Ustadha Sarah Sultan teaches Psychology and Counseling from an Islamic perspetive at Mishkah University. She is also a licensed Mental Health Counselor