Depression is subject that is still a taboo in many cultures; victims of depression are told that they are too weak mentally and waste time thinking about useless thoughts. They are simply told to pray salaah and make dhikr to get over it, but what many people do not understand is that when suffering from depression, a person’s eemaan may be low. Making dhikr when having no faith and no conviction in the words they are saying, may therefore not help; other methods need to be sought out too in conjunction with salaah and dhikr. Many people have no sympathy simply because they do not understand what depression is and how it affects the sufferer. I hope to explore this topic here and talk about how it has personally affected me when trying to parent my children.
Depression is a state in which the victims suffer from feelings of hopelessness, severe dejection, a lack of interest in things; and feelings of personal worthlessness. People suffering from depression have a loss of interest in others, lack of motivation, loss of appetite, they suffer from weight loss, fatigue, and from sleep disorders. They may feel completely run down and cannot take satisfaction from things that once produced enjoyment and also have trouble concentrating; their thoughts and actions slow down to a crawl. A link between stress and depression has been found where the hormones that are released by chronic stress can cause depression; this therefore, suggests a link between chemical imbalance and depression. Also, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men are thought to suffer from depression.
As I mentioned before, depression ends up causing a chemical imbalance; to understand how this affects behaviour though, we need to look at the brain and how different chemicals in the brain produce different reactions. The brain is a huge network of cells that communicate via electrical charges. In between the cells are spaces called synapses, the electrical charges cannot jump across the spaces so chemical communicators are released by the brain cells which carry on the message the brain is trying to send. The communicators are called neurotransmitters; and there are 2 main types of neurotransmitter which are affected by depression: serotonin and noradrenaline. Serotonin controls our sleep/wake cycles; people who suffer from depression have lower levels of serotonin which ends up being recycled through re-absorption, this in turn stops more of it being around. The effects of this are that mood, sleep, appetite and sex drive are affected as communications are lost. Noradrenaline controls brain activity, when you are depressed it is released slowly rather than at normal pace so activity levels plummet too.
Now we know what happens when someone suffers from depression, both inside the brain and personality, but why does stress lead to depression when not everyone suffers from this although everyone does suffer from some sort of stress? What is it about the victims that makes them prone to depression and can they do anything to help themselves out of it or are they doomed to suffer?
In 1967, a psychiatrist named Aaron Beck proposed his theory on depression and the factors contributing to this (known as Beck’s cognitive theory). Beck stated that depression stems from “a triad of intensely negative and irrational beliefs that a person holds about themselves, their future and the world around them”. The beliefs which come first end up producing depression; these negative thoughts form the core of the ‘negative cognitive schema’ which decides how the person interprets events that happen to them. The schemas are developed from unfortunate experiences that happened earlier in life and the way the individual interprets them; for example, a harshly critical attitude at home, loss of a parent or rejection, was it caused by something the individual did or because of the world? These negative thoughts such as the person expecting defeat, end up leading to the person eventually becoming defeated by events; this is known as a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ (where you inevitably end up making your beliefs, your reality).
Becks backed up his theory with his findings from an experiment which looked at how learned helplessness can be linked to a depressive nature. The experiment consisted of two groups of dogs who were put into shuttle boxes which had two compartments; the dogs had to jump from one section to the next to avoid electric shocks. The first group performed well, they quickly learned how to evade the shocks, the second group of dogs behaved differently. Previously, they had been subjected to a series of shocks which they were helpless to escape from, there was nothing they could do. When placed in the shuttle box these dogs made no effort whatsoever to escape and evade the shocks; they didn’t explore their surroundings and so never learned to jump into the next compartment. Instead they gave up and passively accepted their fate by simply lying down and whimpering. Becks states that a similar occurrence happens in depression, where individuals give up and do not try to change their situation due to their defeatist attitude.
Since Beck’s approach has to do with cognition (mental processes such as thoughts etc), the cure also lies in cognition as well as medicine. Anti-depressants work by regulating hormones but this does not change negative thinking; if thought patterns can be changed then they can eradicate depression. The system of beliefs needs to be counteracted by exchanging defeatist thoughts for more positive ones and this is what Islam promotes by telling us to have faith.
I suffered from depression before I had any real understanding of what it was; it started when I was a teenager and carried on, on and off until recently. I still may have it, I don’t know – but I do know that for now at least, alhamdulillah it has gone. I had a troubled childhood and life for me, in those days was hard; my upbringing was strict in some ways and I guess part of me felt neglected. Being part of a big family is not always easy as attention is split in several ways. There were very set ways in which things had to be done: from walking up the stairs, to cleaning; sometimes it felt very suffocating. I would lock myself in my room and stay there for hours writing stories or poems; it was my sanctuary. Life in secondary school was also tough for me and that was the first time I remembered feeling like I didn’t fit in with everyone else. I felt like I was always on the outside looking in, always wanting to be a part of life but not knowing how. I was very self-critical, always thinking I wasn’t good enough and that I had to do better, to be better. I felt misunderstood and under-valued; and I kept quiet because I didn’t think anyone cared enough to listen. I had no idea how dangerous my negative thinking was to my mental health and in reality I wasted years of my life crying over things that I could not have changed and problems that weren’t really there.
When I became a mother things seemed to get worse instead of better. The birth of my daughter was hard and I suffered from post-natal depression, although this was never diagnosed because I would miss check-ups with the health visitor as my ex kept throwing me out of the marital home and I would have to go back to my parents house shame-faced. I was struggling with a lot when she was born: violence and abuse from my ex, feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing; and an inability to cope with a baby. I felt like I was in way over my head and extremely emotional and fragile, but because I had a reputation for putting on a brave face at home I didn’t feel like I could allow myself to ask for help – even to my mum. I would spend most of my time palming off my baby to my in-laws who seemed only too happy to have my daughter without my being there. I didn’t know how to establish a bond with her as I was so low a lot of the time and as a result she didn’t seem to want to come to me. I would actually dread her crying and waking up as I was on edge and I couldn’t relax. When my son was born I deliberately kept him away from my ex’s family as I didn’t want to lose another a child and because he was my “hope baby”; he was my support and strength. However, people started comparing how I treated my 2 children and made ugly remarks like I didn’t love my daughter because she was a girl and made me feel like a monster.
Up until this day, I have problems with my daughter who seems to be exactly like me; I have less patience with her and don’t have the same bond with her as I have with my son. This hurt me a lot because I felt like I had failed as a mother and for as long time I just accepted it not knowing what else to do. I tried telling people I couldn’t cope but once again I felt like my voice was not heard. After I split with my ex, I tried to get back on my feet and start taking an active role in fixing my relationship, but by then a lot of damage had been done which also set me back. I felt like I had to undo everything and start again; once again I felt out of my depth. I would drop the kids off and tell myself I was going to get up and do something, iron their clothes, study, anything – but I couldn’t bring myself to. It really was like all the motivation and energy had been sapped from me, leaving me a shadow of who I was. I just gave up and couldn’t be bothered to try. I welcomed the tears and low mood, neglected myself and barely did my chores. I made no effort with cooking or teaching the kids additional stuff about their subjects, didn’t take them anywhere; and let them sit in front of the TV for hours on end.
The times that I did drag myself up to pray my salaah, I would make dua for things to change and for me to be a good mum and be at peace and be happy. I don’t know when things changed, except that they did; extremely slowly though. I started taking the kids out, walking with them to school, teaching them about Islam and their core subjects; we baked, and played at home and I tried a bit of disciplining. I went on a parenting course, made an effort to meet other mums and accepted that this was my life now but that it didn’t have to be a lost cause; I still had everything I always had; my family, my health, my kids, the luxury of a decent life – I just didn’t have a husband and to be honest who wants a husband that ends up dragging you in to hell? I was always crying when I was with him anyway, always worrying he would cheat again, always thinking I wasn’t enough and was always stressed over fights and feeling lonely; without him, I am more confident, more mature and my mood is more controlled than it was with him.
Being depressed made everything twice as hard, I couldn’t handle the fighting of the kids or their screams or everyday little tasks. I still cannot handle a lot and this may well be a battle that I have to fight for many years but I acknowledge how far I have come. There seemed to be mothers doing an amazing job out there: homeschooling their children, mothers that had no real problems disciplining their children who felt confident and whose children reflected that too. For the longest time I was jealous, and then I realised that jealousy would change nothing, I had to become the change I wanted to see in myself. And so, rather than criticising myself negatively, I started doing it positively: praising my good points and tackling the bad points one step at a time. I knew one of the best ways to elevate my mood was with positive thoughts like Becks said in his theory. I found out more about Islam and tried to feel the blessing in each moment, in each day; I tried to pray my salaah with concentration and tried to be a better person by helping others as much as I could.
There are many inspiring verses from the Qur’an kareem – the most beautiful book in the world which talks about sadness and how to deal with it. Some, are as follows:
“No calamity befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees – before We bring it into existence” – 57:22 . Everything has been pre-ordained and everything that happens was meant to happen.
“He cannot be questioned as to what He does, while they will be questioned” – 21:23. Allah (swt) has wisdom behind all His actions, just because we do not understand why something happens, does NOT give us the right to question Allah.
“Verily, with hardship, there is relief” – 94:6. After every burden comes ease of some sort, it’s up to YOU to open your eyes and see it; Allah (swt) does not let any illness or anxiety befall us except that He erases some of our sins too.
“Be not sad, surely Allah is with us” – 9:40. At times of low eemaan, it is to Allah we should supplicate and turn to, for He alone, has the power to change things.
“And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits” – 2:15. Allah (swt) tests everyone at some point or another to see how strong your faith is and if you still believe in Him. This is simply your test NOT a punishment (especially if it wasn’t your fault). We should be thankful that things were not worse, some people may get tested in ALL areas, or all in one go whilst others may suffer for years and in a more severe way. We should always look at those worse off so that we are grateful for what we do have.
I also attended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which looks at why you think the way you do. The whole concept is based around our thoughts determining our emotions which determine our behaviour. Challenge these ‘warpy thoughts’ and you can turn your negative behaviour around. I found a great free website dedicated to CBT with modules you do in your own time that implements everything I learned in therapy. I strongly recommend taking a look at it and seeing if it’s right for you.
So how can you cure your depression, or is it something you will suffer from forever? Well, to think like that is to give up hope in the Mercy of Allah swt which is not how a Muslim should think. However, sometimes it’s not easy to see the light or know where to begin. I’ve compiled a list below of the things that helped me with my depression alhamdulillah.
• Behavioural activation: increased activity –> feeling hopeful –> improves depression –> greater energy –> increased activity. It’s a cycle. When you are depressed you have low energy and therefore you aren’t very active. This leads to you feeling worse and increases your depression. By injecting behaviour in to your routine, whether it’s doing things for pleasure or necessity you change the pattern; leading to a decrease in depression. A great exercise to write out truthfully what you do every day hourly, so you can see where you can fit in more activity.
• Turn to Allah swt: this should be your first port of call. When we are depressed we don’t feel close to Allah swt and we need to change this around so our hearts feel lighter. Increase your ibadat, fast more, do your dhikr, pray voluntary prayers. These are just some of the things you can do to help. You can also watch uplifting lectures.
• Sabr: it’s important to have sabr, not just with your situation but with yourself too. You are going through something and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you are struggling because Allah swt is Merciful. Have faith that you will get through it and let yourself heal.
• Anti depressants: they aren’t for everyone but they can be an aid, they were for me. Make sure you speak to your doctor properly before deciding; only you know what’s right for you.
• Ruqyah: this is where you use the Qur’an as a cure for any illnesses you may be afflicted with. Allah swt says in the Qur’an that the Qur’an is a source of shifa’a or healing. By simply reciting the Qura’an or listening to it you can improve and even cure your depression. If Allah swt can permit you to have it, then why can’t He take it away also?
• Sadqa: helping others not only makes us feel good but is pleasing to Allah swt. You never know which good deed will allow your trial to end in sha Allah.
• Friends: get a good support system around yourself. Surround yourself with positive people who pick you up and remind you of Allah swt. Angels gather where the name of Allah swt is mentioned.
• Fresh air: subhanallah, when Allah swt has created so much beauty around us – in the trees, birds, sky etc. how can this not ease our sadness when we look upon it and contemplate our vast blessings?!
• Remember that sadness is a tool of the shaytaan to disrupt the believer: once I reflected on this, a determination overtook me to help myself get better. I had fought too hard in my life to let the shaytaan win now.
When I started to really take all of this on board, subhanallah I started to feel different inside. My life hadn’t suddenly gotten better overnight but I had hope and appreciated the gifts that Allah had bestowed upon me, the way He has bestowed gifts upon us all. You can change your mindset, and all it takes is gratitude, humility and faith; being appreciative builds up faith. Depression is NOT a disease you are condemned to suffer from forever; subhanallah the cure to it lies within ourselves; in our hearts and minds. Medicine regulates your body, but a positive attitude and inner peace (found within Islam) regulates your soul and your mind.