Islam and Stress Management (Part 3): Underlying Processes

Posted on December 22, 2006


 by Rafik Beekun

This article builds upon the two other articles previously posted under the category labelled “Islam and Stress Management” on our blog.

Let us examine different types of stress, how they work and their potential effects on you. In general, there are two types of instinctive stress response: the short-term “Fight-or-Flight Response” and the long-term “General Adaptation Syndrome”. The first centers on the survival instinct, while the second results from long-term effect of exposure to stressors. A third mechanism involves the manner in which we think through potentially stressful scenarios calmly and rationally, and manage our stress level.

The body exhibits signs of stress very gradually, so you may not notice it initially and not realize the severity of your stress condition initially. When you are experiencing stress, your brain produces high levels of two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol that help it to survive. These hormones are meant to help you perform harder and faster by giving a temporary surge in strength. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and you produce more oxygen and blood sugar. You concentrate on the threat in order to deal with major events. Unfortunately, you become excitable and anxious when your body undergoes this initial stress state. You are less able to work with others. This response is called the “Fight or Flight response”. This response is triggered not only by life-threatening situations, but also when you experience something unexpected, new or challenging or when you are when frustrated or interrupted. This response is a normal part of everyday life and a part of everyday stress, and can, Insha Allah, be managed if you approach the situation calmly and rationally.

While the Fight-or-Flight response is very short term, a general response (the “General Adaptation Syndrome”) with which the body reacts to a major stimulus, occurs when you experience longer-term stress episodes. While the hormones are not dangerous in the short term, this situation is different: you perceive that you cannot confront the stressful situation directly, or escaping from it in any way. As you begin to feel trapped, you respond by manufacturing more and more of these hormones. This is where you need to be careful, and monitor yourself.

Your response to stress is in three stages:

  1. The alarm stage: in which there is an increase in the level of abovementioned hormones, and you are reacting to the stressor.
  2. The resistance stage: during which the body utilizes the produced energy. Your resistance to the stressor increases as you adapt to, and cope with it.
  3. The exhaustion stage: which results from exposure to the stressor over a long period of time. Once you enter the Exhaustion Phase, your resistance declines. In the business environment, a person may experience “burnout” or may often feel fatigue

Stresses can be classified into internal stresses (which are related to personal characteristics) and external stresses. In addition, they can be classified according to their effects on individual health into a good type of stress (eustress) or a destructive type of stress. Good stress is defined as the ability to respond to the challenges of life in a way that promotes stimulation and encourages personal growth; stress management tools can facilitate this reaction. Examples of destructive, unhealthy reactions to stress are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Some of the possible symptoms of prolonged exposure to stress are headache, brain tissue damage, high blood pressure, heart disease, weakening of the bones, general immune deficiency, muscle tension, menstrual disorders, miscarriage, depression, anger, fear and nervousness. If the body’s immune system is allowed to deteriorate because of stress, it may lead to other serious medical conditions such as a variety of malignancies (Source: Talaat, 2004, “Islamic Oases from Daily Stress.“)

In our day to day life, much of our stress is subtle and originates from situations like work overload, conflicting goals, ethical dilemmas, impending deadlines, conflict with co-workers, hostile work environments and so on. These may affect our performance and distract our attention, thus leading to dissatisfaction or even unhappiness. It is important to realize that to experience stress, you must (a) feel threatened by the situation, and (b) doubt that you are capable of coping with that threat. The threat itself does not have to be physical; it may just be what others might think of you, or whether your career track is at risk or even between two sets of values that are in conflict.

As you seek to handle stress in your work situation or at home, look for patterns in your coping strategies. Evaluate your current coping mechanisms (Mayo Clinic, 2006):

  • Do you tense up? Do you experience tension in your neck and shoulder?  Are you clenching your jaw or fists? Do you have an upset stomach, shortness of breath, back pain, or headaches?
  • Do you eat even when you are not hungry or stop exercising? Stress and overeating go together.
  • Do you get impatient? Do you have trouble falling asleep at night or  do you have difficulty concentrating?
  • Do you get angry? Do you become argumentative, constantly yourself arguing with co-workers, friends or loved ones?  Do you have a short fuse? 
  • Are you reduced to tears? Stress may lead you to cry or find other ways to release emotions.
  • Do you give up? Do you deny an issue exists?
  • Do you emphasize the negative aspects of a situation?
  • Do you smoke? Do you turn to alcohol or other drugs? Stress leads some people to alcohol other drugs, or even relapse into smoking.
  • Do you rely on a single coping technique?  If you notice yourself using one technique all the time to deal with stress (e.g. crying, being argumentative, etc), you may wish to consider other stress-reduction strategies.  Our blog’s series on Islam and Stress Management will discuss a whole array of stress coping mechanisms including those centered around Islam to help you.  Please note again that you may wish to seek professional help if you find yourself unable to manage your stress.

Since changing your work situation may be beyond your immediate control, you need to discover suitable mechanisms to cope with daily stress. Talaat (2004) reminds us that the Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) told us that we could find this internal peace and relaxation during praying. It was reported by Imam Ahmad in (Al Musnad) that the Prophet (May peace and blessings be upon him) has told Bilal “call for the prayers, it will comfort us.”

Future articles will look at stress coping mechanisms in Islam, Insha Allah.

Additional source for this article:
1. Relaxation techniques-stress management techniques from mind tools.

This article is copyrighted 2006.  Please do not quote or cite without permission.