The month of Ramadan is the holiest month in the Muslim Calendar. Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan shifts about 9 days every year. This year, Ramadan started April 2nd. During this month, Muslims around the world participate in fasting from the break of dawn until sunset. Then, the fast is broken, families come together to eat and pray, until the next morning when it starts again. At the end of the month there is a celebration called Eid Al-Fitr, a day of prayer, sometimes presents, and being present as a community or family.
Fasting involves abstaining from both eating and drinking (yes, even water), smoking, sexual relationships, and negative talk about others. It can take a physical and mental toll on the person fasting. Although Ramadan is unique to Islam, most religions incorporate fasting as part of the practice. There are many spiritual benefits to fasting. Today's blog will focus on the mental health benefits of fasting, as well as touch on some reasons why people may choose not to fast.
Abstaining from food and water throughout the day is exhausting. It can also be highly rewarding. After a few initial days of "brain fog," many people notice clearer thinking and more focus. Others who fast also notice a sense of pride and accomplishment for getting through the day without eating. Setting the goal of not eating, then resisting the cravings to do so, and making it through the day focusing on something higher than oneself can boost your mood. Those who have participated in a fast often find a mental or spiritual clarity in denying themselves food.
Going without can also help us remember how to be grateful for what we have. Breaking our fast at the end of a long day reminds us of how blessed we are to be able to eat. It helps increase our compassion and connection with others. We can also feel more connected with our higher power. Many people choose to fast when they are feeling hopeless or depressed to help reset their minds and intentions. A day of fasting can be a powerful experience.
However, for some, fasting is not a good option. People with medical conditions that put them at risk of dehydration, low blood sugar, electrolyte imbalances, etc may not be able to fast. Some people take medication throughout the day that could prevent them from fasting (although many will take their medication with a small sip of water, if able). There's also a subset of people who notice a significant decline in their mental health when they attempt to fast. Someone with an eating who is in early recovery, for instance, may find fasting extremely detrimental. Others find fasting too intense, and instead of having a connection with God or a spiritual enlightenment, they find themselves angry, lethargic, and unable to attend to their families or themselves.
Luckily, Ramadan is about so much more than simply abstaining from food and drink. Those who cannot fast can find solace in works of charity, or spending time with their community. Being charitable to others has been shown time and again to improve one's mental health. And the social connection that comes with Ramadan is often described as the happiest time of year for many Muslims. You can get the benefits of Ramadan whether or not you physically fast. Everyone can use Ramadan as a time to practice gratitude, be mindful of their thoughts and feelings, be more kind to others, and reflect on their connection to the world and their higher power.
How do you know if you should fast or not this Ramadan? Ultimately, the choice will be yours. Many people face a lot of pressure to fast, and don't know how to explain why they are not fasting. It's a very difficult decision to make not to fast, as it is a core pillar of Islam. However, Islam is all about peace, and Muslims believe that God does not want to cause hardship on us.
A few years ago Dr. Shaban made the hard decision to take a pause on fasting during Ramadan. After the birth of her child, she found that keeping hydrated and steady levels of blood sugar were important factors in how she responded to her family. The stress of fasting overtook the spiritual journey and clarity she once had. It's been a hard decision, and each year she reconsiders, but again this year decided not to fast. Although her own inner critic sometimes considers herself weak, or questions her "Muslimness," ultimately this is the best decision she can make for herself. She celebrates Ramadan with quiet reflection instead. This may or may not be the best decision for another Muslim in a similar situation. Everyone's journey is different.
This Ramadan, take time to reflect on why you fast and what you gain from it. Enjoy all the aspects of Ramadan, and may you be blessed! Take care of your physical and mental health! If you are not Muslim, you may want to try fasting for a day to see what it is like for you!