Issue 71 / September - October 2009
Coping with Life's Problems: Western and Islamic Perspectives
God burdens no soul except within its capacityâ€¦ (Al-Baqarah, 2:286)
This verse is not strange to any Muslim. God has promised that He will never burden a person with difficulties beyond his or her capacity. This is supported by other verses in Surah Al-Inshirah (94:5â€“6), where it is said that with every hardship, comes relief and this divine statement is repeated twice in the same chapter. This clearly shows how God knows the limits of the human beingâ€™s capacity to endure challenges in life.
However, despite these beautiful statements God has made in the Qurâ€™an, we still hear many people complaining about how tough life is, about how they cannot bear their problems anymore and asking why God gives them certain challenges other people do not have to bear. The worst thing is when suicide is contemplated as a reaction to what God has given to His servant.
These complaints, at first glance, appear to contradict these verses, since surely the people so afflicted should know their own capacity to endure tough problems. At second glance, however, it becomes clear that this is not so. Does God really test someone beyond his capacity?
In talking about the endurance of an individual, we cannot avoid the subject of coping skills. Generally, coping skills are divided into two categories, namely avoidance coping skills and approach coping skills (Soderstorm, et.al., 2000).
Avoidance coping skills are basically unhealthy ways of dealing with problems. These coping skills delay the process of recovery and emotional stability. An example of a coping skill of this type is substance abuse, where many people turn to coffee, drugs, cigarettes and other substances when they are in distress.
Another avoidance coping skill is denial, where the person refuses to believe what has happened. In some really bad cases, people go on with their lives, refusing to believe the problem they face and allowing the situation to deteriorate. Some other examples are self-harming, minimization and cognitive avoidance. These mechanisms of coping do not just delay the process of recovery, but also exacerbate the situation.
On the other hand, approach coping mechanisms promote the mental and physical well being of an individual. These mechanisms foster positive thinking and motivate problem-solving behaviors. One of the skills in this category is action taking. Rather than sitting and waiting for something to happen, a person who adopts approach coping mechanisms will plan the strategies and actions required to solve or ease the problem.
Another approach coping skill is acceptance. However, acceptance here means to admit that there is a problem and not resent to the occurrence of the problem. Acceptance which means giving up is not the same as acceptance as an approach coping skills. Positive acceptance is the opposite of denial. Therefore, acceptance is an important beginning of acting to solve or ease a problem.
Humor can also be an approach coping mechanism. By making appropriate fun of the problem, distress can be reduced, and thus more mental stability can be achieved. For example, a mother who has just experienced the loss of her child might say to herself, â€śAt least he is enjoying as much candy as he wants in paradise.â€ť By using appropriate humor like this, the mother can broaden her perspective, allowing her to see the brighter side of the loss she has experienced.
Religious coping is another strategy among approach coping skills. In psychological research, more and more studies suggest ways that spirituality and religiosity help in dealing with lifeâ€™s problems. One of these studies (Meisenhelder and Chandler 2002) stressed that faith as the concept of spirituality was more applicable than religiosity. One of the variables investigated by these researchers, which was religious coping, correlated positively with mental health. This study is only one out of many to show a strong relation between spirituality and mental and physical well being.
Soderstorm et.al. (2000) also suggested some gender differences in coping strategies. They asserted that men tend to adopt task-oriented coping strategies or approach type and women tend to use the contrary, avoidance coping strategies. However, some other studies have suggested that women are more likely to use task-oriented coping strategies or that there are no gender differences (Holahan & Moos, 1985 as cited in Soderstorm et.al. 2000). Nevertheless, more and more researchers have found a tendency for men to focus on a problem and start taking action to overcome it.
The relation between the verse in Surah al-Baqarah at the beginning of this discussion and coping skills is clear. The question then arises: if it is true that God would never burden a soul beyond its capacity, why do some people complain of being unable to deal with a certain problem they face? If they think that God is unfair, or that they are now unable to cope, or are thinking of committing suicide, it is simply that they have adopted the wrong kind of coping strategy for their individual circumstances, or they may have adopted unhealthy avoidance coping strategies in dealing with problems.
Abi-Hashem (2007) describes how unhealthy coping skills can have negative impacts on people who live in a country with ongoing war, as in the Middle East. Such circumstances, where violence, cruelty, and harshness are an unavoidable part of life make things seem hopeless, and nothing can be done to break away from the situation. The author suggests that at this point, the best coping strategy to be employed is action taking, because worsening mental paralysis can happen to an individual in a country with war who takes no positive action. So, if a person feels as if the challenge God has given them is beyond what they can bear, they should ponder any action they have taken to adjust to the problem. They may have missed some points where, if action is taken, a great deal of worry and stress can be reduced or allayed.
Another way of looking at this is that religious coping skill correlates with mental well being. But sadly not many people realize the importance of religious coping skills in managing lifeâ€™s problems. In many verses in the Qurâ€™an (e.g. Al-Anâ€™am 6:102; Hud 11:123), God reminds us to depend on Him in all affairs, to put our trust in Him and make Him the basis of our decision making. This reflects all research findings, which tell us repeatedly of the advantages and positive outcomes of religious coping. Perhaps this is because we know that there is something we can rely on in hard times, which makes it easier for us to deal with lifeâ€™s problems. Some practical ways to cope religiously are the performance of greater numbers of recommended prayers, more frequent remembrance of God, and contemplating the creation of the universe.
Sometimes we believe too much in the power of our own selves, feeling too confident that it is we who make the changes, who solve the problems. But we all know the power of togetherness. Support from other people can significantly increase the effectiveness of our coping style. We can reduce our stress by sharing what is bothering us and perhaps getting wiser advice from another person on handling the problems we are facing.
It is important to reflect on ourselves in times of stress. Do we just listen to ourselves? Do we turn to substances when we are distressed by something? Are we brave enough to accept the problem which is afflicting us? Most importantly, do we trust God enough to help us with our problems? These questions can only be answered by each individual for himself or herself.
Taufik Mohammad, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Abi-Hashem, N. (2007). The agony, silent grief, and deep frustration of many communities in the Middle East: Challenges for coping and survival. In P. T. P. Wong and C. J. Wong (Eds.), Handbook of Multicultural Perspectives on Stress and Coping, US: Springer US, pp. 457â€“486.
Meisenhelder, J. B. & Chandler, E. N. (2002). Spirituality and health outcomes in the elderly. Journal of Religion and Health, 41, 243â€“252.
Soderstrom, M., Dolbier, C., Leiferman, J. & Seinhardt, M. (2000). The relationship of hardiness, coping strategies, and perceived stress to symptoms of illness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 321â€“328.