Overcoming depression and anxiety with Islam

July 6, 2015

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Depression and anxiety are two closely related conditions afflicting most of us at one time or another. A little depression and anxiety is a normal part of life which can be cured with prayer and positive thinking. However, sometimes we unwittingly nurture these negative feelings to the point of developing an anxiety disorder or clinical depression. For those of us who experience abnormal and unhealthy levels of depression and anxiety, there is hope in Islam to overcome these debilitating symptoms without resorting to pharmaceuticals. However, if depression and anxiety persist after exhausting these techniques, then medical intervention by a specialist doctor may be necessary.

We should seek our cure for depression and anxiety in a holistic manner by addressing its physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. These symptoms occur because there is something wrong in our body, mind, or spirit which needs to be fixed. Too often Muslims seek the cure solely by spiritual means of prayer but are left disappointed when the symptoms persist. Although prayer is very important, it is only one piece of the puzzle. We cannot achieve total relief until we restore a healthy balance in all aspects of our being.

First, we must recognize that in Islam our physical bodies have a right over us to take care of our health, optimize our nutrition, get enough quality sleep, and exercise regularly.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَإِنَّ لِنَفْسِكَ عَلَيْكَ حَقًّا فَصُمْ وَأَفْطِرْ وَصَلِّ وَنَمْ

Verily, your own self has rights over you, so fast and break your fast, pray and sleep.

Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 1369, Grade: Sahih

Indeed, prayer and fasting are inherently good acts but doing them excessively to the point of neglecting the needs of the body makes them blameworthy. Such is the priority of sound bodily health in Islam.

The most important aspect of bodily health is to eat nutritious natural foods because most diseases take root in the stomach due to unhealthy eating habits.

Ibn Rajab reports that classical Arab doctors used to say:

الْحَمِيَّةُ رَأْسُ الدَّوَاءِ وَالْبِطْنَةُ رَأْسُ الدَّاءِ

Diet is the foundation of medicine and the stomach is the foundation of illness.

Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam 2/468

Many of us become depressed because our bodies are not receiving enough nutrients and such an imbalance affects our whole being. Hence, Allah commands us to eat wholesome foods (tayyibat) produced naturally from the earth.

Allah said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُلُوا مِن طَيِّبَاتِ مَا رَزَقْنَاكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِلَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ إِيَّاهُ تَعْبُدُونَ

O you who believe, eat from the wholesome things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is Him that you worship.

Surat al-Baqarah 2:172

Much of the industrial mass-produced food in our age is highly processed and contains too much sugar, salt, chemicals, and other additives. We should take steps to eat less sugar, less salt, less empty carbohydrates, and less junk food while adding more fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins to our diet.

Furthermore, we need to avoid extravagance with food and overeating. Even eating too much good food can cause problems which will ultimately affect our mental health. The worst vessel a person can fill is their stomach.

Miqdam ibn Ma’d reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَا مَلَأَ آدَمِيٌّ وِعَاءً شَرًّا مِنْ بَطْنٍ حَسْبُ الْآدَمِيِّ لُقَيْمَاتٌ يُقِمْنَ صُلْبَهُ فَإِنْ غَلَبَتْ الْآدَمِيَّ نَفْسُهُ فَثُلُثٌ لِلطَّعَامِ وَثُلُثٌ لِلشَّرَابِ وَثُلُثٌ لِلنَّفَسِ

There is no vessel which the son of Adam can fill that is more evil than his stomach, for it is enough for him to take a few bites in order to straighten his back. Yet if he is overcome by appetite, then he may fill it with a third of food, a third of drink, and a third of breath.

Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 3349, Grade: Sahih

The prophetic tradition (sunnah) is to fill the stomach with one third of food, one third of drink, and one third left empty. If we followed this wise advice, as difficult as it may be for some of us, we would inevitably see the positive results on our bodies and subsequently on our depression and anxiety.

Modern medical science is beginning to realize what Muslim doctors have known since the classical period, that most diseases begin in the stomach. Dr. Alejandro Junger is one such doctor who has developed a diet program to help people heal their guts and prevent diseases before they start. Since people are so varied in their tastes and traditions, it is difficult to say there is one single diet each person should follow. Rather, there are broad principles, certain types of food to consume or avoid, and each person needs to navigate their own course in pursuit of a diet most suitable for their specific health needs.

In addition to diet, we need to make sure we get enough quality sleep and exercise. Allah created the night time for us to rest and our bodies require it, as neglecting our sleep requirement for any reason, even prayer, is a blameworthy excess.

Allah said:

وَجَعَلْنَا نَوْمَكُمْ سُبَاتًا وَجَعَلْنَا اللَّيْلَ لِبَاسًا

And We made your sleep for rest and the night as a covering.

Surat al-Naba 78:9-10

Following the prophetic traditions in this regard and establishing them as a nightly routine will rejuvenate the body and aid the healing process.

Next, we have to clear our minds of negative thoughts and think positively as much as we can. Thoughts are often difficult to regulate, but we do have a degree of control over what we choose to think about and reflect upon. The true believer should try to be an optimist, thinking the best about Allah and His decrees, rather than being a pessimist always dwelling upon the worst case scenario.

One of the most destructive ways of thinking is to nurture hatred, envy, and malice towards others. Many times our hatred of others harms ourselves more than anyone else. We have to force ourselves to forgive others, to let go of grudges, and to calm pent up feelings of anger. The prophetic way is to cleanse our mind of hateful thoughts every morning and evening through prayer and supplication.

Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to me:

يَا بُنَيَّ إِنْ قَدَرْتَ أَنْ تُصْبِحَ وَتُمْسِيَ لَيْسَ فِي قَلْبِكَ غِشٌّ لِأَحَدٍ فَافْعَلْ

O boy, if you are able every morning and evening to remove any rancor from your heart towards anyone, then do so.

Then the Prophet said to me:

يَا بُنَيَّ وَذَلِكَ مِنْ سُنَّتِي وَمَنْ أَحْيَا سُنَّتِي فَقَدْ أَحَبَّنِي وَمَنْ أَحَبَّنِي كَانَ مَعِي فِي الْجَنَّة

O boy, that is my tradition and whoever revives my tradition has loved me, and whoever loves me will be with me in Paradise.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2678, Grade: Hasan

We should not indulge in negative assumption and suspicion against others. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking the worst about others and even expressing it through backbiting. We have to catch ourselves in such moments and switch our mental conversation to something better.

Allah said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ ۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا وَلَا يَغْتَب بَّعْضُكُم بَعْضًا

O you who believe, avoid much suspicion. Indeed, some suspicion is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other.

Surat al-Hujurat 49:12

Not only must we control our feelings toward others, we also need to control our feelings toward objects. When our happiness depends upon material gain and success, we are bound to be disappointed as such worldly things will never last.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

تَعِسَ عَبْدُ الدِّينَارِ وَالدِّرْهَمِ وَالْقَطِيفَةِ وَالْخَمِيصَةِ إِنْ أُعْطِيَ رَضِيَ، وَإِنْ لَمْ يُعْطَ لَمْ يَرْضَ

Wretched is the servant of gold, silver, fine clothes, and garments. If he is given he is pleased, but if he is not given he is displeased.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6071, Grade: Sahih

Often people become depressed when they do not get what they want, but true believers who are unattached to such concerns are always happy even in dire circumstances. The Prophet suffered for the cause of Islam more than any of us, losing his loved ones and enduring pain and hunger, yet the companions reported that they never saw anyone smile as often as him. Even when death and destruction seemed so close, the Prophet would continue to smile and spread his positive thinking.

Finally, we have to become spiritually healthy by adhering to authentic theological beliefs and acts of worship. There is a specific supplication the Prophet taught us for curing depression and anxiety which reveals how important sound creed is to our mental health:

Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي عَبْدُكَ وَابْنُ عَبْدِكَ وَابْنُ أَمَتِكَ نَاصِيَتِي بِيَدِكَ مَاضٍ فِيَّ حُكْمُكَ عَدْلٌ فِيَّ قَضَاؤُكَ أَسْأَلُكَ بِكُلِّ اسْمٍ هُوَ لَكَ سَمَّيْتَ بِهِ نَفْسَكَ أَوْ عَلَّمْتَهُ أَحَدًا مِنْ خَلْقِكَ أَوْ أَنْزَلْتَهُ فِي كِتَابِكَ أَوْ اسْتَأْثَرْتَ بِهِ فِي عِلْمِ الْغَيْبِ عِنْدَكَ أَنْ تَجْعَلَ الْقُرْآنَ رَبِيعَ قَلْبِي وَنُورَ صَدْرِي وَجِلَاءَ حُزْنِي وَذَهَابَ هَمِّي

O Allah, I am your servant, the son of your servant, the son of your maidservant. My forelock 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 with which you have described yourself, or which you have revealed in your Book, or you have taught to any of your creatures, or which you have chosen to keep in the knowledge of the unseen with you, to make the Quran the delight of my heart, the light of my chest, and to remove my sadness and dispel my anxiety.

Source: Musnad Aḥmad 3704, Grade: Sahih

This supplication expresses firm faith in the providence of Allah (qadr) over all creation. We should remember that Allah is in control of everything and, as long as we have faith, He will decree only what is best for us in this world and the Hereafter.

Suhaib reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

عَجَبًا لِأَمْرِ الْمُؤْمِنِ إِنَّ أَمْرَهُ كُلَّهُ خَيْرٌ وَلَيْسَ ذَاكَ لِأَحَدٍ إِلَّا لِلْمُؤْمِنِ إِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ سَرَّاءُ شَكَرَ فَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُ وَإِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ ضَرَّاءُ صَبَرَ فَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُ

Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him. If he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2999, Grade: Sahih

This is the secret by which so many of the righteous predecessors (as-salaf as-salih) were able to remain positive despite living in difficult circumstances. They understood that whatever Allah decreed for them was good. Even if it appeared bad to them in worldly terms, they knew that it was best for their fate in the Hereafter, so they would always praise Allah in every circumstance.

Shuraih, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

إِنِّي لَأُصَابُ بِالْمُصِيبَةِ فَأَحْمَدُ اللَّهَ عَلَيْهَا أَرْبَعَ مَرَّاتٍ أَحْمَدُ إِذْ لَمْ يَكُنْ أَعْظَمَ مِنْهَا وَأَحْمَدُ إِذْ رَزَقَنِي الصَّبْرَ عَلَيْهَا وَأَحْمَدُ إِذْ وَفَّقَنِي لِلِاسْتِرْجَاعِ لِمَا أَرْجُو مِنَ الثَّوَابِ وَأَحْمَدُ إِذْ لَمْ يَجْعَلْهَا فِي دِينِي

If I am afflicted with a calamity, then I praise Allah four times. I praise him that it was not worse than it was. I praise him when he provides me with patience to bear it. I praise him when he guides me to supplicate appropriately and hoping for reward, and I praise him for not making it a calamity in my religion.

Source: Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā’ 4/105

In life we will be disappointed when we experience hardship and loss, but our faith and trust in Allah’s infinite wisdom will help us endure these trials and keep us focused on the greatest goal in the Hereafter. We should return to the Quran often to hear this message, remind us of the favors of Allah, and keep this worldly existence in the right perspective. It is by the Quran, the greatest remembrance, that our hearts will find rest and assurance.

Allah said:

أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

No doubt, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured.

Surat al-Ra’d 13:28

Overcoming depression and anxiety when they have a stranglehold over our lives is an exceptionally difficult task, yet there is hope for healing and a clear path forward in Islam. All things are possible with Allah and no pit of despair is too deep to rise above with His help. It will take effort and perseverance as we take charge of our well-being. Each of us experiences a unique set of circumstances and challenges in our lives, which means the details of our treatment plans will vary, but our complete restoration will always involve healing each aspect of our being: body, mind, and soul.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.