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Coping with mental health during holy Ramadan

Doctors in the UAE say that while the holy month of Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection and community-connect for Muslims around the world, the changes in routine can also lead to heightened levels of stress as health experts advised coping mechanisms to safeguard mental health.

Ramadan is marked by fasting from dawn to dusk, which requires abstaining from all food and drink. This act of self-restraint is meant to instill spiritual virtues such as patience, self-control and empathy toward those less fortunate.
“If we seek to explore the psychological benefits of fasting, it’s imperative to delve into the concept of instant gratification,” explains Dr Othman Elsayed, a psychiatrist at Burjeel Day Surgery Center in Abu Dhabi.

“Fasting entails postponing the satisfaction of both, the soul’s desires and the body’s needs, from dawn to sunset. During fasting, we refrain from consuming food and drink, as well as from immediately indulging in certain desires. This act of abstaining trains the soul in what psychologists term ‘delayed gratification,’ which is the ability to postpone the fulfillment of desires – a trait that distinguishes mature from immature personalities. Through fasting, we cultivate patience and foster personal maturity,” Elsayed explains.

In addition to patience, fasting aims to teach the suppression of anger and the practice of forgiveness. “Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] instructed us to respond to ignorance or criticism with these words: ‘I am fasting, I am fasting,’” notes Elsayed. “This guidance serves to en-courage patience and self-control, steering us away from engaging in heated exchanges or disputes.”

Coping with heightened emotions

While fasting offers spiritual benefits, some may find themselves becoming irritable or prone to mood swings during Ramadan, the doctor warns. However, such reactions are often exac-erbated by other factors unrelated to fasting itself.

“Many individuals who are fasting are habitual smokers and may experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal during fasting hours, including restlessness, headaches, poor concentra-tion, anxiety, and disturbed sleep,” Elsayed says.

“These manifestations are not solely attributable to fasting, but indicate a dependency on tobacco. Similarly, those addicted to caffeine – found in coffee, tea, and cola – may experi-ence lethargy, irritability, and mood swings upon abrupt cessation of caffeine consumption during fasting hours,” Elsayed further says.

By gradually reducing intake of tobacco, caffeine, or other addictive substances, individuals can mitigate withdrawal symptoms and avoid heightened stress.

Adjusting to disruptions in routine

Beyond fasting, Ramadan also involves changes in sleep patterns, diet, and activity levels that can impact mental health.

“Your usual sleep-wake cycle may need adjusting; worries about getting enough sleep are normal, but can be counterproductive,” says Dr. Bisi Laniyan, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai. “Be patient with yourself as you adjust. Listening to your body and resting when needed can safeguard your mental well-being and enhance your engagement in spiritual practices,” Laniyan says.

Iftar meals after long days of fasting can also lead to overeating. “Eating slowly and mindful-ly can help you be more aware of when you’re full, preventing overeating and ensuring you get the nourishment you need,” notes Laniyan.

Finding enough time for physical activity can be yet another hurdle. “It’s less about intense workouts and more about keeping your body moving,” says Laniyan. “Simple activities such as walking after Iftar can be helpful, especially in avoiding post-meal sluggishness.”

The power of community

Ramadan also places great emphasis on community and charity. “One of the beautiful as-pects of the holy month is its emphasis on community and the shared sense of unity and to-getherness, achieved through collective prayer, food, and charity,” explains Laniyan.

Research shows that involvement in a religious community and social support from family and friends can have profound benefits for mental health. The sense of belonging and spir-itual fulfilment from community worship and traditions can help reduce stress.

Reflection and spiritual practice

Ramadan offers the chance to reconnect spiritually through daily worship and reflection.

“Ramadan allows us a unique opportunity for self-reflection. By taking moments each day to reflect, you can become more mindful of the blessings in your life,” advises Laniyan.

In fact, studies reveal that those who deeply engage in religious activities such as prayer and meditation tend to have lower rates of anxiety and depression. The spiritual practices of Ramadan provide not only religious benefits, but also positive impacts on overall mental well-being.

“As you fast during this holy month, remember that you’re tending to your spiritual health, nourishing your body, mental health, mind, soul, and relationships,” says Laniyan. “By being mindful of your needs and utilizing positive coping strategies, you can discover inner peace and contentment this Ramadan.”