Isolation is underrated. Perhaps it’s why Umar Ibn al-Khattab advised his companions, as narrated, to take their share of it.
A recent article on The Atlantic has attributed the rising appeal for trauma self-help books during the pandemic to declining mental health due to social isolation.
After all the anxiety and social isolation of pandemic life, and now the lingering uncertainty about what comes next, many people are turning to a growing genre of trauma self-help books for relief.
However, it could be that the isolation has only revealed already existing underlying pain.
When people are left with no option to numb themselves through social gatherings, they’re encountered with the pain they have been escaping for so long. Coincidentally, the lockdown has encouraged many to revert to Islam, and others to review their career paths and life choices. Peer pressure is of more power than we might think, and we’re often chasing things just to please others. Most importantly, we’re continuously trying to quench our spiritual thirst with materialistic suppressants.
A misunderstanding of these symptoms has led many to turn to trauma self-help books for relief. The argument made against those books is that they’re addressing extreme cases which don’t apply to the vast majority of their readers.
“For most people, however, a better description of the past 19 months might be “chronic stressor,” or even “extreme adversity,” experts told me—in other words, a source of immense distress, but not necessarily with severe long-term consequences.
Unfortunately, those books are inferior both in regards to research methodology and the solutions they offer. First, they are based on complete neglect of the soul as a major player in psychological well-being, which obviously contradicts with the Islamic belief.
Kolk’s theory that trauma can sever the connection between the mind, which wants to forget what happened, and the body, which can’t.
Second, they’re validating their theories through biased interpretations of data (survivor stories), rather than authentic concrete knowledge from the Creator of the body, mind, and soul.
These books tend to follow a reliable arc, using the stories of trauma survivors to advance a central thesis, and then concluding with a few chapters of actionable advice for individual readers.
Finally, the solutions are ironic, cheap alternatives to rituals from Divine revelation.
For patients like these, van der Kolk eventually turned to yoga, massage therapy, and an intervention called eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, which specifically treats the traumatic memories that pull people with PTSD back into the past.
The existence of traumatic experiences is undeniable, but the concern here is that those extreme cases don’t apply to the general public. Propagating such discussions can trap healthy individuals into false self-diagnosis and a victimized view of their struggles, instead of actively seeking real solutions. For others, it acts as means to dramatize everyday life, or a way of showing off an educated background, the same way people discuss politics for no apparent benefit.
It is unfortunate to witness many Muslim countries get “enlightened” –- or rather contaminated –- with such ideas, just because these are the sort of discussions in “progressive” countries. The recent episode of the trending Egyptian animation Tahalip has raised awareness about depression and the validity of seeking counseling. The producers have previously demonstrated sound judgments of religious and moral topics. However, they overlooked the Islamic perspective on psychological healing and the crucial role of the Quran.
The author of The Atlantic article concludes that the current solutions, including self-help books, are insufficient in curing what most people are experiencing.
If we want a shot at addressing the real consequences of the pandemic, we will need not only more research but a new language—one that expresses terrible experiences that aren’t strictly traumatic and leads to solutions that are bigger than any one of us in isolation.
We as Muslims have the solution within our own hands. Prophet Mohammed ﷺ is the final Messenger, but his Ummah should carry on his legacy.
I would like to remind myself and others that we should treat people the same way we want Allah to treat us. Having mercy upon others is a way of showering Allah’s mercy upon ourselves. We might believe that feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless are ultimate acts of mercy. However, Ibn al-Qayyim states otherwise in his book Zad Al Ma’ad:
“The necessity of knowing the Message is a more pressing need (for man) than finding food and beverages. The example of the importance of guidance to mankind is similar to the importance of water to a whale. If taken out of the water, it would die; similarly, no one will truly realize the explicit need of spiritual guidance except one who has a living heart.”
In addition to funding da`wah projects, I would recommend actively spreading guidance within your close circles. Gift a physical Quran copy to your non-Muslim friend or share translations and interpretations of Quranic ayat as social media stories. Gradually, those little contributions can have a more effective cumulative impact.
“So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it”. (Quran, 99:7)