By Jamila Cassim
What is stress? Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger, real or perceived your body’s defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the ‘stress response’. The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you .When working adequately, it helps you to stay focused, energetic and alert; it helps you to meet challenges of everyday living. Too much stress however, stops being helpful and can cause major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships and quality of life (www.helpguide.org; date accessed 12/12)
The physiological changes to yourself as a result of a stressful situation can be illustrated as follows: When you perceive a threat, the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress-hormones, inducing adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse your body for emergency action. Your heart beats faster, muscles tense ,blood pressure rises, breath intake becomes quicker and the senses sharpen, thus increasing your reaction time and enhancing your focus, preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand (www.helpguide.org ;date accessed 12/12).
It is important to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is that it creeps up on you .You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how it takes a heavy toll.
Stress is not exclusive to socio-economic status or gender; it can affect anyone and each person experiences stress differently .Some of the emotional symptoms of an individual experiencing stress are anger, agitation and over- emotional behaviour. Some individuals become depressed or withdrawn. Physical symptoms often include sleep disturbances, muscle tension and headaches(www.helpguide.org: date accessed 12/12)
Just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person .Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, such as the quality of your personal relationships, your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence and genetics. Long term exposure to stress can lead to health problems. It can raise blood pressure ,suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke, contribute to infertility and speed up the aging process (www.helpguide.org: date accessed 12/12)
What Causes Stress?
Common external causes of stress include major life changes (children and family), a very busy work schedule, relationship problems and financial difficulties. Stress can also be self-generated. Your inability to accept uncertainty, your unrealistic expectations, your need for perfectionism, your lack of assertiveness as well as fatigue can contribute to your stressful situation (www.helpguide.org: date accessed 12/12)
Women and Stress
According to Reuters (2011), women today are at large more stressed than those in the past. Women in emerging economic and social markets are more prone to stress than those in developed countries. The results of the poll shows that 87% of Indian women feel stressed most of the time with an additional 82% asserting that they have insufficient time to relax. According to the survey, South Africa is ranked the 7th country in the world within which women claim to be stressed most of the time (67%) (http://newsfeed.time.com;2011)
Why is this so? According to experts women are far more susceptible to stress than men because they are socialized to be the caregivers of others. Their multi-dimensional roles contribute to increased stress levels and can be defined as follows:
- For most married women, juggling between careers outside the home and traditional responsibilities at home.
- For the single, divorced or widowed mother, the pressure to cope with being a breadwinner as well as being a parent (financial woes together with parenting puts tremendous strain on a mother’s mental and physical wellbeing).
- For an unhappy mother-to-be, maternal stress can transmit the bad stress chemical called cortisol from mother to child, leading to clinical depression in the child’s later life. Maternal stress not only increases the risk of pre-term labour ,but also low birth weight(http//mentalhealthnews.org; date accessed; 2012) ;
- For the elderly woman, serious health related stresses may be experienced, for example; urine incontinence. Medically, As a woman progresses through life’s stages, hormonal balance associated with premenstrual, post-partum and menopausal changes can affect the chemical vulnerability to stress and depression (http//myclevelandonline.org ;date accessed; 2012)
Stress is often out of your control, but there are effective ways to manage it. The idea is to take charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your environment, your schedule and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself and making time for rest and relaxation. Exercising on a regular basis, taking frequent breaks from work and massage therapy are just some of the common mechanisms that help minimise stress. (www.stress-management-for-peakperformance.co.;date accessed, 2012)
Scientists are continually trying to find new strategies to cope with stress and minimize its effect. Some of these new-age strategies include: relaxation techniques, meditation, imagination and yoga. These techniques are extensively studied to determine their effects and mechanism of action. Different studies have confirmed the efficacy of these techniques in coping with stress and eliminating its effects. As a result, These techniques are now entering the medical mainstream and are now being included in many treatment programmes (www.zawaj.com;date accessed;12/12).
Islam as a Solution to Stress
Most of the aforementioned techniques are rooted in Islamic spirituality. Different forms of Islamic worship ‘ibadat’, if performed in the correct manner, can be considered great tools for coping with life’s stresses. Those who are extremely stressed can find peace, refuge and relaxation for their minds, bodies and souls utilizing the following Islamic “oasis” (www.zawaj.com; date accessed;2012).
Stress is a response not created by any particular type of event or situation, but rather by the way an event is perceived. Therefore, ‘the stress response’ is a matter of perception, or awareness and is activated by what amounts to a person’s worldview. Islamic Spiritual practices such as Prayer and Dikhr can dramatically alter your worldview, thereby restoring your feelings of self-worth and giving you a feeling of deeply-rooted power and control (www.zawaj.com;date accessed; 2012).
Control has been found to be the key in chronic stress. It has been observed in clinical studies that the extent to which you feel in control of your environment is the extent to which you will, or will not experience the hormonal ‘stress response’. Those who feel powerless, tend to feel the most stressed and those who have great personal control and power over themselves are much more likely to experience less stress. In Islam, Muslims believe that Allah (SWT) controls the whole world and all the creatures in it. He also supports his creation as they perform fervent prayer. By having control over prayer, Muslims indirectly have control over the outcome of their life situations, therefore lessoning their stress levels (www.zawaj.com; 2012).
2. Meditation and Relaxation (Prayer)
In prayer, the Muslim man and woman meditate to find closeness with their creator. With meditation, the mind is trained to pay attention and to follow commands. In this way, you can learn to quiet your thoughts and traffic in your mind, thereby freeing up mental and physical energy. Meditation works by eliciting the relaxation response and is characterized by a decreased heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption and muscle tension (www.zawaj.com; 2012).
As the Holy Quran encourages prayer:
“Such as remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and consider the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! Thou createdst not this in vain. Glory be to Thee! Preserve us from the doom of Fire” (3:191)
3. Remembrance (Dikhr)
Meditation can be performed by concentrating on one word, or a few words, that give you a sense of internal peace and calm, for example, by repeating the words SubhanAllah (Glory be to Allah) or alhumduillah (all praise be to Allah). Deep and silent repetition of such words produces the same physiological effects of meditation. It also helps in stress elimination by encouraging a feeling of being in close proximity to Allah, the controller of all affairs (www.zawaj.com; date accessed;2012). In light of this, the Quran states: “O you who believe! Seek assistance through patience and prayer; surely Allah is with the patient” (Quran 2:153)
Recent scientific investigations also show that praying reduces post-operative complications following open heart surgery. Praying also markedly reduces the percentage of patients exposed to depression following hospitalization .Doctors suggest that praying can be used as an alternative therapy to exercise or herbal treatment. According to Koenig of the Duke University (USA), “when prayer uplifts or calms, it inhabits cortisol (the hormone that flows out of the adrenaline gland in response to stress)” (www.zawaj.com;date accessed;2012). Five prayers have been prescribed to Muslims daily. Not only is it there for spiritual enhancement, but also for physical and psychological healing.
The act of Wudhu (ablution) and the Salat (prayer), plus the mental preparation and participation of these two acts, can lead to the development of a state of calmness, peace and relaxation, since it entails forbearance ,tolerance, forgiveness and nobility (international Journal of Humanities and social science; 2011) The 5 daily prayers engender a state of homeostasis (stability) in the body since the period of work stress is interrupted to allow the body to come to rest again. Psychologically, Salat promotes mental stability and calmness. It also leads to mental relaxation and emotional well being.
For the Muslim who believes that this world is transient and that the hereafter is his or her abode, he or she knows that this world is filled with trials and tribulations. For the believer, the advent of stress is part of their existence .In the teachings of the Holy Quran they already find the necessary tools like Imaan, Salat, dikhr, and the love of Allah (SWT) to rise above the effects of stress. Stress is furthermore combated with the knowledge that Allah, the Almighty, is in control of their destiny.