Health: Our Most Precious Possession

To follow up with the post I wrote a few weeks back regarding the hadith that details the conversation Prophet Muhammad (saws) had with his companion Abu Dharr,  I just wanted to include the second piece of advice given.  The last post dealt with taking advantage of youth before old age, whereas the second admonishment was to take advantage of one’s physical health before illness.

Certainly health is something we all take for granted except when we lose it.  The older we become, the more conscious we are of how our bodies simply aren’t responding the way they used to.  I’m sure many of the middle aged, older, and elderly may look back with regret at the careless way they lived their lives and the flippant attitude toward taking care of their health.  Some may even look at today’s youth and shudder at the careless, unconcerned approach they hold regarding their health, knowing full well that despite popular belief, no one will escape the reality of aging and the inescapable downward spiral of our health.

I know each time I’m sick, I am constantly thinking to myself that when I’m well again I’ll always be thankful for each second of my wellness, and will be conscious of every healthy moment.  Yet inevitably, after some time has passed since I begin to feel better, the memory of my resolution begins to fade and I struggle to make a conscious effort to remind myself of the phenomenal blessing God has given me of such good health and the full use of all my limbs.

SubhanAllah, on the days when I feel most down and depressed, I try to always remind myself of all the numerous blessings I’ve been given (physical as well as mental) – I’m sure there are countless others who would love to trade places with me in a heartbeat, despite all my overwhelming and obvious shortcomings and failures.   As Imam Ali (as) mentioned, whenever we start feeling badly, we should look at those less fortunate than us to remind ourselves of all the blessings God has given us, and to help us put our vision of ourselves back into perspective.

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Hijab: A Protective Factor in Women’s Body Image Issues?

Although many people in the West know little about Islam, the veil is one exception that everyone is familiar with.  Although the Western perception is that the veil serves as a form of oppression (I also used to share this view), Muslim women see it as quite the opposite.  Some researchers have taken the debate a step further by putting the veil and its effects to scientific testing.

Although I found very few studies done on the effects of the veil, the handful I did find seemed to have mixed results.   I found it curious and wondered what other factors were affecting the outcomes.   Anyone familiar with the Middle East can attest to the fact that despite the veil being a requirement in many countries, women still suffer from body image issues, which can also result in depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.  Thus, the act of simply wearing the veil does not seem to automatically protect women from body image issues.

However, I found another study (Rastmanesh, Gluck, & Shadman, 2009) that was much more telling.  In this particular study, the researchers took three groups of Iranian women, all of whom are required to wear the veil by law, and separated them by those wearing the chador (full coverage, beyond the requirement), those maintaining the basic requirement of veiling, and those just under the requirement, wearing tight clothes and a loose veil with hair still showing.  The researchers measured participants’ answers on a variety of instruments, such as the Beck depression inventory, the body shape questionnaire, the eating disorders inventory, the Rosenburg self-esteem scale, and questions on the importance of slimness.

The results yielded that women who veiled above and beyond the basic requirement scored far better than those in the other groups, with the women in the third group scoring the lowest.  What this indicates is that indeed, simply wearing the veil does not safeguard a woman from body image issues, but wearing the veil willingly does.  The results also should not be interpreted to mean that covering oneself from head to toe should be strictly enforced – nor does it mean that Muslim countries should abandon the veil requirement – not at all.  It simply indicates that those who 1. cover the Islamically required areas, and 2. do it because they believe in it and desire to do it, are the ones who benefit most from the veil.

So essentially, the veil is not only a physical practice.  Rather, the veil must be both physical and mental in order for it to serve as a protective factor against body image issues in women.  In fact, if a woman doesn’t believe in it, she risks being even more vulnerable to the mental health issues that plague women, as her sole source of value – her body – is covered and she has no way of competing against the other women around her, either in real life or in the media.  Her value is invisible and shielded from view, so from her perspective, she has nothing else that gives her worth.  Obviously, when you believe that you have nothing to offer, it is easy to fall into low self-esteem, depression, and so on.   Such women may even attempt to go to more extremes to make their sole source of currency visible, by wearing tight clothes so as to show off as much as they can, engaging in disordered eating in order to make their body more noticeably slimmer than those around them, and what reportedly is becoming a quickly increasing phenomenon in the Middle East, undergoing facial plastic surgery.  If the face is the only thing still visible, altering it in order to make it more appealing makes the most sense.  Apparently rhinoplasty enjoys great popularity in Iran and other places, and anyone who watches Arab media knows that Arab women (and other Middle Eastern women) wear a great deal of make up (not all of them of course, but those who have adopted the idea that a woman’s worth is in her appearance).

One of my Saudi friends has often told me stories about how Saudi women, who have to cover their faces (with the exception of the eyes), often go to great lengths in order to have very extravagently made up eyes.

He said there are many jokes about a guy being lured in by a woman’s eyes, only to later find, after pursuing her for marriage, that her eyes were the only thing appealing about her – at which point it was too late to back out!

The lesson in all this is that the West is not the inventor of female sexual objectification and oppression.  Isolating oneself completely from the influence of Western countries does not mean you will be safe from all things evil.

No, on the contrary; the abuse and mistreatment of women is something that we are all capable of; its potential lurks in all of us.  This is why God has first asked men to lower their gaze, and second for women to cover.  If one fails, the other protective component will still be in place.  But, as shown by this particular study, Islam also emphasizes the importance of knowledge and intention behind each action.  Actions that are empty and ritualistic are worthless and a waste of time.  But actions done with full knowledge and understanding of the purpose and benefit behind it, and with the right intentions have reward both in this life and in the hereafter.  A woman who veils simply because she has to will not experience the full benefit of it.  In fact, any benefit she does receive may be viewed negatively (i.e. men aren’t staring at her lustfully anymore, which she perceives as negative since her value is increased and measured by such attention).  In contrast, a woman who veils because she wants to and because she understands and desires its benefits will indeed reap the full reward in this life by being treated for who she is as a person and not as a set of body parts, and will receive the reward in heaven as well.  Correct knowledge, pure intention, and action comprise the optimal combination we all should strive for.

With all that in mind, should a woman who covers merely because Islam has asked her to give up and refrain from doing so?  No, because she still receives benefit from it even if she may not recognize it as such.  Plus, as Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb (in Nahjul Balagha) has sagely stated (Bihar Al-Anwar, p. 196)), there are three types of believers.  The first is one who obeys God from fear of punishment.  The second is one who obeys from the desire for reward.  And the third is one who obeys God simply because they want to, not for any reward or escape from punishment, but because they recognize and fully understand that this is the right and true thing to do.  All of these are still believers, and all of them will go to heaven, but their outcomes are all slightly different.  The first will escape punishment but may not have collected much reward in heaven (although there is still reward for doing the right thing), the second will gain a great deal of reward in heaven, and the third will gain reward both in the world and in heaven (despite not seeking either one!).

Indeed, God is the most merciful and the most wise.

The Benefits of a Smile

“A smile is charity.” -Prophet Muhammad (saws)

(Bismillah irrahman irraheem.)

“A smile is charity” – such a seemingly simple statement – it only has four words – yet it holds such a powerful message that requires one to stop and reflect.  What does that mean, exactly, that a smile is charity?  Essentially, when we smile at others, we are bringing something positive into their lives – a smile of only a few seconds can have a long-lasting impact. 

Yet, just like with the Islamic concept of charity (bringing both benefit to the receiver but also a great deal of blessing to the giver), a smile brings benefit to both the receiver and to the ‘smiler’.  Even research today has confirmed the numerous benefits of smiling (http://longevity.about.com/od/lifelongbeauty/tp/smiling.htm). 

First, smiling makes you attractive.  People are drawn to those who look pleasant and open, and repelled by those who are grim and frowning.  Thus, smiling attracts people to you. 

Further, smiling can change your mood.  It’s hard to feel grumpy when you have your face contorted into a smile – it takes a lot of effort to do that (in fact, many more muscles are used when smiling as opposed to frowning)!  Psychologically, our behaviors are tied into both our emotions and thoughts, so if we are physically doing something positive (smiling), inevitably our thoughts and feelings will follow suit and turn more positive.  Physically, smiling releases endorphins and seratonin, both of which cause positive, happy emotions.  So, the next time you are feeling down, try smiling – the most natural drug for curing depression!

Smiling has other positive health effects as well.  Our immune systems are boosted by smiling; it also reduces stress and high blood pressure.  Smiling seems to be a multi-purpose drug for ailments that afflict us all. 

Finally, smiling helps bring positive energy to another person’s day and helps to brighten their mood.  Think back to when you were having a bad day and someone smiled at you – how did that make you feel?  Undoubtedly, your mood lifted – at least for a moment – as a result of their act of charity.  No amount of words, no amount of money – nothing at all – can have the same effect as a genuine smile. 

All Muslims should follow the sage advice of the Prophet – smile.  Always strive to have a positive and cheerful demeanor.  Walking around with angry, judgmental faces will only push people away and create a negative environment. 

So the next time you’re out, trying smiling.  There are no negative side effects!  It’s rare to find something that practically everyone has the capacity to do that not only benefits you, but everyone around you as well!

Roots of Depression

My intention with this blog was to first discuss much of my experiences and thought processes surrounding my conversion to Islam, but since I’ve been doing a lot of pondering, reading, and self-analysis on the subject of depression, I decided I’d go ahead and post it in hopes that it can help others. 

Depression: A Symptom, Not a Cause

Going through graduate school for counseling psychology, I often heard that depression isn’t the cause but is a symptom of something else.  That something else can come from pretty much anything – internalized, unexpressed anger, dissatisfaction with life circumstances, etc.  There is no one answer.  Yet, it seems that so many people, especially in the US and other western countries, suffer from the imprisonment of depression. 

Why?  When we have so much in our lives; when we live better than many other people in the world – why are we so depressed?  We don’t have to suffer through the horrors of being in a war zone, having relatives killed or raped, living in constant fear, always in survival mode, not free to move beyond the comfort of the basics and express ourselves creatively, give back to the community around us… Even the poorest among us are still relatively better off than those considered ‘normal’ in other countries.  We have more civil liberties, we can express ourselves, we can disagree with the government if we want to, we have a judicial system which is relatively uncorrupted (although institutionalized racism and discrimination still exists, but it certainly isn’t as overt as in other countries) so we can count on justice and fairness for the most part.  So why do we feel that life is so hopeless? 

External vs. Internal Roots

There are many answers.  Sometimes depression can be circumstantial and be caused by external factors, but many times, especially in the case of Americans, I believe it is intrinsic, internal.  My thoughts stem from a theory I recently came across by a couple, the Weinholds, who are also psychologists.  Developmental psychologists know that the first 3 years of life are the most crucial for forming personality, our view of ourselves and others (the world around us), and the behaviors we develop to get us through life.  If trauma occurs during this critical stage, the likelihood of developing maladaptive traits and behaviors is strong. 

However, the theory that this couple puts forward is that smaller traumas that occur here and there early in life can add up to having the same effect as an extreme trauma.  I think many of us may fall into this camp, which is where unhealthy patterns begin to occur.  Smaller traumas may not even be noticeable to the adults in the child’s life, such as moving frequently (thus creating a sense of instability and abandonment), the birth of a new sibling (and the child being left alone, ignored), frequent changes in caretakers (such as going to daycare early on and being looked after by several employees in the same day even), and so on. 

Early Experiences: Long-Term Effects

All of these smaller traumas can add up to create issues in adult life, especially if they aren’t explored and processed.  Adults can become afraid of abandonment and thus get into codependent relationships in which they sacrifice themselves at all costs to keep the other happy so that they won’t ‘leave’.  They lose their boundaries and sense of self in order to do and be everything the other person desires.  When a person loses their sense of self, they no longer give value to their own thoughts and feelings and push them aside.  Depression springs up as a signal that something is wrong; something is unbalanced. 

Other people begin to play the perpetual victim role in order to achieve the attention they didn’t get early in life.  Even if the attention they receive in their relationship now is sufficient, without those early events being processed and recognized, they still create a sense of desperate hunger in our innermost being.  This obviously wreaks havoc on a relationship, as the victim is manipulating the feelings and actions of the other person, and is no longer being genuine and honest.  This can push the victim into depression because their true self isn’t known. 

Early trauma can also cause us to believe that the world is not to be trusted (since our caretakers did not give us attention when we cried for it), and that others cannot be depended on.  It also reinforces the idea that we must not be valuable or worth anything if we were neglected (or received intermittent care).  This is the core of depression, in my opinion.  Early experiences taught us that others don’t care about us because we aren’t valuable, creating a deep self hatred and even anger. 

Self-Hatred

So, the root of depression is in our attitudes towards ourselves.  Medication won’t cure it (it only numbs it for a while til your body gets used to it and needs a stronger dose or different medicine), exercise or changing your habits won’t cure it (although they can be a healthy way to help alleviate it), and definitely self-medication doesn’t help (such as drugs, alcohol, sex – although it numbs it), as those create even more problems down the road. 

In Search of the Cure

For a while, I’ve struggled with the question of which is more important for self-improvement and (hopefully) digging ourselves out of depression: focusing on our weaknesses, or focusing on both our weaknesses and our strengths?  Which one will keep me in a self-aware, humble, and driven state of mind conducive to self-improvement? If we acknowledge our strengths, I thought, we might become complacent and lazy, telling ourselves that we’re not that bad and not feel as compelled to change as a result.  Plus, some people may be so depressed and self-loathing that they fail to see any strengths at all.   

However, recently I have realized that when we focus solely on our weaknesses, we essentially paralyze ourselves due to the constant condemnation, self-criticism, and the belief that we have nothing positive or of value to offer.  When we get into that frame of mind, we go into survival mode.  Our bodies and brains shut down and just try to survive – get through one day to the next, go through the most basic actions.  We’re fearful of making mistakes, we’re harsh and unforgiving when we do… it’s all we can do to survive; we wouldn’t even consider branching out to take a risk or try something new. 

Instead, the Islamic life motto, all things in moderation, walking the tight rope of the middle path, serves as the best solution.  We need to have a balance of both.  We need to recognize our strengths, because we can use our strengths to help us overcome our weaknesses.  If we believe that we have no value, we’re left feeling very helpless and unable to change – because we simply don’t have the tools to do so.  But, if we recognize and acknowledge our strengths, we can use them as tools to make ourselves better and improve our weaknesses.  

Yet, some of us may still be too depressed and worn down to give value to our strengths.  We may not trust ourselves to have an accurate assessment of our strengths.  For those of us who believe in God, or in a higher power, then the solution is simple.  All of God’s creation has been carefully crafted, and humans in particular, as the Bible states, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Out of our respect and sincerity in our belief in God, we must have respect  for His creation, and thus, for ourselves.  Even if we find no value in ourselves, God does.  Even if we question our existence and wish we were better off not having been born, God intentionally put us here.  Out of respect for God, we must respect ourselves.

Respect for Self 

God is the most merciful, the most compassionate – as we are reminded over and over in the Quran.  When we make mistakes, He doesn’t immediately condemn us to hell or send us an earthly punishment.  He sees our grief, our desire for repentance, and He lovingly, mercifully, forgives us.  If the God of the universe can be merciful towards us, then part of our gratitude toward Him should include having mercy toward ourselves. 

To do this, we don’t need to lie to ourselves or live in a delusion that we’re in great shape and have no problems.  Instead, we need to simply acknowledge our strengths, and use them to help us overcome our weaknesses.  We need to speak to ourselves more mercifully.  If our inner, self-talk is constantly negative and critical, logically our emotions and our energy levels will be negative as well.  Our general functioning will decline – our health will worsen even.  Yet, if our self-talk is merciful, encouraging instead of critical and destructive, we’ll feel more hopeful.  We’ll feel more motivated to ‘do better next time.’  We’ll look for ways to expand, try new things, reach out, explore ourselves.  With a safe, encouraging base, our minds are braver and more energized to reach higher goals.  On the contrary, with a critical, unforgiving base, our minds are too fearful to attempt anything outside of what is ‘safe,’ which isn’t much because you’ve already determined that you have no strengths. 

Positive Behavior causes Positive Emotions

One thing I often find myself falling into is that I’ll reward myself when I’m doing something right.  I might wear clothes that I really like, for example,  as a reward.  If I’m not doing well, I won’t, which makes me feel worse as a result since I feel self-conscious about my appearance, and increases my negative self-talk.  It’s a downward, negative spiral.

During graduate school when I was in the counseling program, one of my professors told me that he had trouble initially showing empathy nonverbally.  He had empathic thoughts, but he had trouble actually feeling it and as a result, showing it.  He decided to consciously ‘show’ his empathy (by raising his eyebrows, opening his mouth, gasping, etc.) in order to be more responsive to his clients.  He found that over time, his feelings began to gradually catch up.  He engaged in the behaviors before he ‘felt’ anything; yet his positive behaviors affected his feelings. 

I realized that the same is true with fighting depression.  If we do positive things as a reward for doing something right, inevitably we’ll end up spiraling downward, because we’ll make mistakes, punish ourselves, feel worse, punish ourselves again – causing ourselves to continue downward with no positive, rewarding behaviors.  It should be the opposite: we need to engage in positive behavior, which will in turn cause our feelings to be more positive.  Proponents of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to improving mental health know very well that our thoughts affect our feelings, our feelings affect our behaviors, and our behaviors affect our thoughts – and vice versa.  Therefore, positive behavior will inevitably affect both our thoughts and feelings positively.  When we care about ourselves, respect ourselves, we start to feel better.  Thus, when we feel depressed, when we feel particularly loathing toward ourselves, this is when we should do something positive.  Again, if not for our sake, but for the sake of respecting God’s creation.   

I have more thoughts on this subject, but this is long enough to provide plenty food for thought.  Below is the link to the psychologists discussing the theory of early childhood trauma causing difficulty later in life.  They do come off as a bit bland, but they have fanstatic, intriguing things to say. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPmRQSNUs2w&feature=related