*this article is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice.
Amal only awaited the Angel of Death to come and take her soul away. Her heart rate was insanely high, she could not catch her breath, and every fiber of her body told her that death was imminent. Her vision was blurry and her legs would not carry her, so she collapsed on the floor, still conscious. She repeated “subhanAllah,” “subhanAllah” in her mind, hoping for a good end. A pang of regret tore at her frantic heart. What of her life? Was that it? She had barely accomplished anything in her short twenty years, and now it was ending, suddenly, without warning. The waves of terror swept over her. At any moment, the Angel of Death would sweep over her too, and collect her soul, destined for the Hereafter.
Just like that, it was over. Amal had just experienced her first panic attack.
It is estimated that every year 40% of the Australian population experiences a panic attack. This problem affects men and women of all ages and walks of life, with a higher chance of it happening to women. Women like Amal, a 24 year old mother of two from Australia.
"It came suddenly, as I walked to my car after an Eid gathering. I felt like my heart had stopped, and and that my soul was about to be snatched from me at any moment,” she recalls. It was a moment of utter confusion for Amal, who was unaware of what was happening to her. This is something common amongst sufferers of panic attacks, who sometimes believe these encounters to be urgent, life-threatening situations. Many call for emergency help in the belief that they are suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Amal visited her doctor the next morning, with the belief that something was seriously wrong with her. Within minutes of describing her symptoms, the doctor told her she had experienced a panic attack, and referred her to a psychologist to receive help. Amal said she did not click with her first psychologist, and gave up on getting help.
"I didn't get along with my first psychologist. After five sessions, she still wanted to know my whole life story, and I wasn't getting any better. Going to her clinic caused me a lot of anxiety as I had to go there alone by public transportation, and I just gave up.”
Amal's children laugh and play in the backyard, unaware of the heavy subject matter Amal and I discuss inside. Amal said experiencing panic attacks whilst having children felt like a type of prison. "My condition was made so much harder by the fact that I had little dependants - imagine freaking out at the thought of taking your little son to the park. At the same time, I so desperately wanted to be better, so I could be a better mother to them.”
"After the initial attack, I continued to have panic attacks frequently. It got to the point where I was afraid to leave the house. My doctor assured me I was healthy, maa'shaa'Allah, but I was not convinced, and believed I was dying.” As one can imagine, this is a difficult subject for one to discuss. I noticed Amal feels the same, as her eyes welled up with tears. Amal dabbed at her eyes and said quietly, " I never knew my mind could wreak such havoc on my body.”
According to Beyondblue, panic attacks are sudden, intense waves of fear. Accompanying symptoms may include elevated heartrate, blurred vision, feelings of impending doom, weak "jelly" legs, and dizziness. Sufferers may believe they are having a serious medical emergency.
Without treatment, panic attacks can become debilitating for sufferers, who may become housebound due to fear, mostly fear of having another panic attack. Amal cried and said shakily, "I was so terrified at the thought of going out, I used to suffer stomach troubles and cry beforehand. Many times I just refused to go. I became dependent on my husband and mother to do things for me. I just couldn't cope. Life seemed way too distressing to handle,” composing herself, she said, "All the while, only a handful of people very close to me knew what was happening. It seemed everyone else thought I was being snobby - they had no idea what was going on. Anxiety and panic attacks are like that - they are silent and rarely can you see them from the outside, but it doesn't mean they aren't real.”
After the birth of her second child, a year after her first panic attack, Amal said things began to turn around. "By the time I had my second child, I had already suffered for a year. My mother forced me to go and see a psychologist, saying that enough was enough, and that my children would eventually begin to suffer due to my condition. Things really started to get better after a few sessions with the psychologist, Alhamdulilah.” Amal's psychologist began to treat Amal by using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT. CBT includes changing ones thinking and behavioral patterns by using strategies such as distraction, meditation, and gradient exposure (gradual exposure to the object/place of fear in order to desensitize).
"The psychologist taught me to do things that would turn my attention away from how awful I was feeling, like count the things around me or remember a funny moment I had with my kids ," Amal explained, "At one point I kept a thought record. I recorded all my anxious thoughts and dissected them, to see how true or realistic they were. Most times they were nonsensical thoughts that came from my over-active imagination.”
After several months of psychological treatment, Amal says she felt confident enough to stop seeing the psychologist. She still suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, but on a much smaller scale. "I try to concentrate on regulating my breathing, and that helps. And I always have to keep in mind that anxiety is worrying about the future, and that I need to leave the future up to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. There is no point in being anxious about things that may or am not happen. Although that is, of course, much harder said than done.”
"My advice to sufferers is to please see a doctor, and don't forget to make dua at every point of your journey. If Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala sent the problem, He also sent the solution. A psychologist can be invaluable if they don't tell you to believe, or do anything contradictory to the deen. Don't let anyone tell you that it's weak faith or that you're just possessed - you have a treatable condition that can, and inshaAllah will, become just a memory.” Muslims who are tempted to relegate anxiety and panic attacks to the realm of bogeymen and nonsensical stories should understand that Islam recognizes anxiety as a legitimate feeling experienced by mankind.
Allahumma inni a'udhu bika minal-hammi wal¸huzni wal-'ajazi wal-kasli wal-bukhli wal-jubni wa á¸ala'Īd-dayni wa ghalabatir-rijal. (O Allāh, I take refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardice, the burden of debts and from being overpowered by men.)
Amal sighed and shook her head, "Most of all, don't listen to that negative part of yourself that says the future is bleak and life is over. It's not - even if the tunnel is dark and the walk is arduous, there is always a light at the end of it - a really bright, happy light. Ask Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala to take you there.”
For indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.
Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.
(Sahih International Translation. Quran 94:5-6)
*If you suffer from any of the problems mentioned please see your local GP for advice and referrals for assistance.
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