The Sacred Circle held on 30 Jan 2015
Anxiety & Panic Attacks
PART I : UNDERSTANDING ANXIETY
The Sacred Circle is a gathering of the broken and the healed, where people who have gone through or are going through unique struggles in their lives meet and share their stories with one another under the guidance of a moderator. We will learn from one another on how to deal with our struggles, how to understand ourselves and others better, and how to strengthen our relationships with the Creator through our struggles. For more info, click here. You can also contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. [Sacred Circle is held on a monthly basis in Singapore.]
“The only guarantee in life is death.” ~ Sister Kismet
Anxiety grips us all sometimes. On our worst days, it leaves us feeling helpless and makes it near impossible to think of anything else. On our best days, it looms over us and succeeds in conferring a generalised feeling of dread about what lies ahead. Anxiety and stress in general can be productive. But where is the line drawn between healthy anxiety and excessive anxiety?
The Sacred Circle gathering on 30th January 2015 brought together people from all walks of life who shared one thing in common: they had all experienced intense, crippling anxiety at some point in their lives.
Sister A, a primary school teacher, wife, and mother shared that she had been doing well in her career until she had her first panic attack just before going up to make a presentation at an international conference, after which she began to have panic attacks increasingly regularly.
Sister B shared that she first began to get anxiety because she was abused by her father in the past. Sister Kismet shared that she used to get panic attacks just before going onstage for gigs, and continued to get panic attacks after that because of the regret she had in her life.
As the last Sacred Circle participant finished sharing his personal struggles with anxiety, the moderator thanked each and every person present for attending the session and said: “Anxiety can be a step towards becoming a human being, but it’s just that now you don’t know how to grow past it.” He paused, and looked around the room. Questioning looks were exchanged.
What does it mean to be a human being?
What does anxiety have to do with a becoming a human being?
How do I make sense of my anxiety?
How do I grow past it?
Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, a great ninth-century scholar and physician who made vast contributions to the field of psychological therapy, mentioned in his manuscript Masalih al Abdan wa al Anfus (Sustenance of the Soul) that “distress and anxiety are the most powerful causes of the psychological illness of the soul, and joy and happiness are the main basis of its health.” In other words, excessive distress and anxiety rob a person of their tranquility and happiness.
Perhaps, then, at the root of excessive anxiety and distress is a desire to excessively control one’s life. When we try too hard to fit our lives into a mental blueprint of how we want our lives to be like, we blind ourselves us from the gratitude and contentment found in being fully present in the present moment.
Sayyidina Abdullah ibn Mas’ud radiAllahuanhu, one of the greatest Companions, had anxiety after the Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam passed away, because he was consumed with regret about his past actions of going against the Prophet salAllahualayhiwassalam. Eventually, however, he realised that his anxiety was a blessing from Allah, because it was how he got to know Allah.
One who keeps holding on to the past chains himself to his overwhelming regret, and one who worries excessively about the future chains himself to perpetual uncertainty, both of them inducing burdensome amounts of anxiety and distress. As the great Sufi saint and spiritual master Shams at-Tabriz said, “The past is an interpretation, and the future is an illusion… If you want to attain eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”
But how does one remain within the present moment? How can one keep his anxiety under control?
PART II : CONTROLLING ANXIETY
“Action comes after knowledge. You know that certain things stress you out and make you react a certain way. So you need to know your triggers and avoid the triggers. To be in control of the anxiety is to control both the internal and external.”
– Shaykh Abdul Aziz Fredericks, The Sacred Path of Love 2015
The road to recovery is different for everyone. That much became clear as each Sacred Circle participant began to share what personally worked for them in their own journey towards recovery. Nevertheless, there were overarching themes that the participants all had in common. Recovering from anxiety required taking care of one’s own internal reality as well as the external environment that one finds oneself in.
- Changing perceptions of yourself, and of God.
It can seem near impossible to visualize any kind of reality for yourself that does not include having anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes, it’s difficult to even remember what life was like before all the anxiety took over.More often than not, we wonder what we did to deserve being “punished” with anxiety and panic attacks. At the heart of this perception of hardships and punishments lies the perception that Allah is vengeful and full of wrath. But in reality, Allah is merciful, and He does not give hardships to His subjects except that He wants them to grow from them and to call out to Him in desperation, for He said in a Hadith Qudsi, “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake.” The reality of life is to witness Allah through calamities.Anxiety doesn’t need to be seen as an insurmountable mountain that stands between Allah and ourselves, even if it really seems like it sometimes. In fact, it could facilitate one’s wayfaring on the path to Allah. To surrender ourselves completely to the Divine is to recognize that no successes in any shape or form come from ourselves, and only Allah grants true tranquility and happiness.
- Shifting expectations
Nothing lasts forever. All of us hold dearly to the things and people we love in life, and fear being left behind by our loved ones or being left without a clue about what to do when things don’t go as planned. But, as Sister Kismet so beautifully put it, “There is no guarantee in life except death.” In life, there are no guarantees, there are only probabilities. It can be difficult to let go of our own expectations of how we want our lives to turn out. But the one who has full and complete certainty in the material and spiritual provision of Allah can never be dominated by anxiety and distress. To be set free from crippling anxiety, we need to set ourselves free from crippling expectations of our own lives, and be in a constant state of gratitude to He who has conferred infinite blessings on us.One cannot expect to be cured immediately, either. Sister Kismet shared that it took years of careful, conscientious struggling before she stopped getting panic attacks. There is no such thing as an auto-pilot mode in life. Allah lifts us out of our hardships when He knows it’s the right time, and the struggle and striving itself is meant as a means to draw closer to Him.
- Changing the environment
The most recurrent theme amongst all the participants was the need for supportive companionship and the importance of consistently reciting dhikr, salawat and istighfar. Brother Solihin shared that it was good to have supportive friends on whom you can rely and who can help tell you what you’re doing wrong. Sometimes, though, when the friends you’ve had for so long are actually influencing you negatively, it’s better to be alone: Keeping good company is better than being alone, but being alone is better than being in bad company.Dhikr is often a neglected practice in today’s society despite its healing effects. Someone who is in love will keep mentioning the name of their beloved, until his inner reality is filled with nothing but their beloved. He thinks of nothing but the beloved, dreams of nothing but the beloved, and acts only to win the pleasure of his beloved. So what would happen to the one who keeps mentioning the name of Allah? Brother Solihin attested to this, saying that dhikr cleanses your thought system and replaces your negative thoughts with good thoughts, and grants you tranquility.In Brother Solihin’s case, when he tried to quit smoking, each time he felt the urge to smoke, he would recite salawat repeatedly until the urge went away. It didn’t rid him of the desire to smoke overnight, but in time it did melt the desire away. In Sister Kismet’s case, she made istighfar profusely because she was filled with regret about her past to the point that she would wake up having panic attacks in the middle of the night.
As the Sacred Circle session drew to an end, the moderator paused before giving his final comments. Silence engulfed the room, and a sense of quiet introspection and hope filled the air.
The moderator smiled before saying, “Ultimately, each of us has our own paths to travel on our journey towards Allah. It is not for others to tell you what to do with your life. That is a decision each person must make for himself. Ask yourself, what do you want in life? Where are you going in this life? How do you want to live? Ask Allah to make clear to you the right course of action to take, and busy yourself in istikharah and dhikr.
The nafs will always try to give up before it really realizes who it is. You cannot give up on yourself because Allah has never given up on you. No matter how bad things get, know that Allah said, “When My slave takes one step towards Me, I take 1000 steps towards him.” Remember that Allah’s mercy never stops, no matter what.