My Mental Health Journey Through Ramadan
June 3, 2019
For the last month, Muslims all over the world have celebrated the holiday known as Ramadan.
It’s a month of fasting (for all who are able), prayer, recitation of the Quran, and community gathering—all to commemorate the arrival of the holy Quran.
The daily fast is done by abstaining from food, drink, and anything deemed sinful for the duration of each day—from sunrise to sundown. At sundown, we break fast with a large meal known as iftar and often spend the evenings surrounded by other members of our community in celebration and prayer.
For me, Ramadan has always served as a deeply introspective time, forcing me to sit with all of the good and bad I have spiritually accumulated. In recent years, I also have come to notice a definitive shift for the better in my mental health during Ramadan.
There isn’t tons of conclusive scientific evidence that proves the mental health benefits of Ramadan. There’s actually more that’s been written about how, during Ramadan, certain types of psychiatric disorders may suffer or be triggered by disrupted sleep, which can happen when some Muslims stay up all night in prayer and eat a meal right before sunrise (also known as suhoor). It’s important to note that people with illnesses, including mental illnesses and eating disorders, are exempt from fasting during Ramadan.
However, there are studies that point to some psychological benefits of Ramadan. The Department of Nursing and Behavioral Sciences Research Center at Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences in Tehran conducted a study with a group of 313 nurses who were interviewed before and after the month. The results showed that the nurses’ depression and stress levels had significantly reduced after the month of Ramadan.
Ramadan impacts me long after the month has ended, and, since I’m in the habit of journaling, I’ve been able to record my thoughts and beliefs throughout the month.
In the interest of transparency about mental health and spirituality, I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned through celebrating Ramadan over the years.
Love in Community
I started celebrating the holiday when I was 10 years old. During that time, Ramadan took place in the winter, so days were short (the holiday arrives at a slightly different time each year, because it is determined by the Islamic Lunar Calendar).
I went to Islamic Sunday school, so I sort of understood why I was fasting, but it felt more like a challenging chore than a decision that was my own.
I remember telling the people who worked in the cafeteria at my middle school that I couldn’t eat the lunch they had prepared. They would send me home with fresh baked cookies that I excitedly inhaled the moment the sun went down (shoutout to Manny, he always made the best cookies).
It wasn’t a very introspective time for me because I was concerned with not fainting during after school sports like gymnastics or soccer, and making sure that my breath didn’t smell too bad for anyone who tried to talk to me.
A tweet that recently went viral shows a screenshot of a conversation between a mom and her son, both fasting. The son asks the mom if it’s okay to break his fast to eat pizza at the party. That was me, more or less.
But as soon as I began to live on my own, I realized that my own traditions and ceremonies were my responsibility to create and that they would ultimately play a role in my spiritual growth, too.
The act of bringing friends together in my own home for iftar became extremely meaningful to me. When I was fresh out of college, I turned iftars into big events. I’d invite friends over and cook big meals. I still do that to this day, which elevates my gratitude for the food and hydration I’ve abstained from.
To end the day with people I love is a feeling like no other. It’s a much needed respite from my day-to-day life, where end of day meals can feel rushed and unintentional.
Achieving Synchronicity and Self-Acceptance
A feeling of clarity—a certain mutual agreement between my body and mind that we’re working together to achieve the same thing—also happens to me during the fast.
The synchronicity between the two is difficult for me to achieve outside of the gym, a yoga class, or meditation. Part of this has to do with the pursuit of internal forgiveness, reckoning, and acceptance that goes hand in hand with my fast. (This sort of alludes to the Islamic belief of tawbah, the act of repentance.)
In the absence of food and other distractions, I am at the mercy of myself and am reminded of how difficult I can be on myself. Something I grapple with almost every year, particularly during Ramadan, is a feeling of self-hatred. While I’m not proud of it, it has remained within me for much of my life.
Every year, I come to a new realization about my spirit, who I’ve learned to speak to as my present-day self. Removing the distractions and obstacles of any given day, forces me to sit with this inner self, check in, and actually engage in meaningful discourse. That impacts how I engage with everyone else around me.
I am living for an entire month in service not only to a greater God, but to those around me. Something I hear a lot over the course of this month is the idea that Ramadan is no different than other months, or that we should behave the same way we do during the month as we do during the rest of the year.
But it’s the physical alteration of body and mind that really stops me from thinking about challenges I’m dealing with and encourages me to do better by others. The biggest thing I’ve learned from fasting is how to advocate for myself and others.
A Break from Traditional Exercise
I didn’t understand what it meant to exercise the mind in the same way that I exercise my body until a Ramadan a few years ago.
It’s impossible for me to maintain my daily exercise regimen while fasting, and I felt anxious about my lack of physical movement. I ultimately realized when I’m fasting, I’m basically existing in a constant state of fully involved mind and body exercise, which has had a positive impact on my anxiety levels. I still get anxious from time to time because I enjoy physical activity, but upon understanding this I've come to feel more at ease.
My mental health journey hasn’t been solely propelled by Ramadan—it’s also fueled by the day-to-day work of journaling, practicing healthy communication, sitting with myself, processing things in real-time, and regular therapy sessions. But Ramadan has played a pivotal role in this journey, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Today’s recommended meditation: