Build mental resilience with these 1000-year-old techniques from a traditional Muslim Psychologist.

With depression and anxiety on the rise in western society, the importance of developing Mental Resilience is more important than ever. Mental resilience is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis and/or to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Modern-day psychologists are working hard to find solutions for the rise in mental health problems. A few years ago a translation of an old Arabic manuscript to English and the scientific articles (Awaad, 2015 and 2016) that followed shocked modern-day psychologist.

This was the work of a Muslim scholar that we know by the name of Abu Zayd Ahmed ibn Sahl al- Balkhi. Abu Zayd Al-Balkhi, whowas a Muslim scholar, physician, psychologist, geographer and scientist. He was born in the year 850 in the province of Balkh, modern-day Afghanistan, and died in 934. What made him famous today is the translation of his book Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Body and Soul). In this book, he describes many psychological diseases and treatments. He took modern-day psychologists by surprise when they saw he wrote about detailed classifications of mental illnesses and his usage of cognitive therapies that look very similar to current scientifically backed ‘best practices’. The theories Al-Balkhi wrote about where only to be ‘invented’ and used by modern-day psychologist at the beginning of the 20th century (more than a thousand years later!).

Al-Balkhi didn’t only write about severe mental illnesses. He starts off his book by discussing the importance of pro-actively maintaining ones good (mental) health before mental sickness arises. He describes several techniques that build mental resilience that can now be scientifically be proven to be effective to deal with stress or anxiety.

Tip 1: Reflect and prepare during the good times. 

“When feeling peaceful and when the faculties of the soul are in a tranquil state, one should convince the heart (mind) that this world, dunya, has not been created to give people whatever they wish or desire without their being subjected to anxieties and worries or harmful unwelcome symptoms. One should realize (after this internal monologue of self-convincing) that this is the inherent nature of life on this earth and that this is what one should expect from life in developing one’s habits and a regular way of life. Therefore one should not ask for what has not been created in the very nature of one’s world.”

Al-Balkhi advises us to reflect on reality when feeling relaxed and safe.
Life is not a continues succession of ‘win after win’. You are going to fail, be disappointed and face uncertainties. This might sound like Al-Balkhi is pessimistic, but this simply creates a much more healthy worldview than the ‘only good times’ farce that we are shown on Instagram and Facebook. Al-Balkhi is teaching us to plan and ponder the possibility of setbacks whilst working towards our (life)goals. Expecting setbacks will decrease the shock when things go bad unexpectedly. He teaches us to anticipate and plan for the inevitable. “And this is what one should expect from life in developing one’s habits and regular way of life”.

In modern-day psychology, this practice of visualising one’s goals and thinking about possible obstacles (and how to deal with them) is called Mental Contrasting. Mental contrasting has been shown to improve success in behavioural change interventions (Cross & Sheffield, 2019).

Tip 2: Train your mind as you would train your body

“…one should, as much as one can tolerate, learn to ignore the annoying (anxiety-provoking) elements that one experiences. A person should train himself not to overreact to the minor incidents or things that he hears or sees. … In doing so he will be analogous to one who (gradually) trains himself to tolerate the painful effects of a slight increase in temperature, heat or cold, as well as other minor bodily pains, without showing impatience or tension until this becomes part of his habits. This approach is the way to train the body and is the same approach to train the soul.”

Al-Balkhi advises us to gradually expose our minds to increasing levels of stress in times of mental health and relaxation. Gradual and controlled exposure to stress trains our mind to deal with it more effectively. Exposing yourself to thoughts, that would normally cause stress/anxiety, whilst being in a relaxed state desensitises these stressors in our mind. Modern-day psychologist started writing about these techniques in the 1950s and called it ‘exposure’ and ‘desensitization’ therapy.

Tip 3: make a mental health first aid kit

“the method to deal with psychological symptoms is for a person to generating (positive) thoughts within his soul to aid him in suppressing symptoms and desensitizing their agitation. These tranquil thoughts and beliefs should not only be generated during illness. They can be nurtured and developed during times of psychological health and relaxation and stored in memory to bring them back to consciousness whenever one is afflicted with emotional symptoms. These (internal) thoughts will be one’s first source of aid if there exists no (external) wise person to help with the symptoms. This is equivalent to the storage of medicine with established worth in a first aid kit to use in case of unexpected bodily pain developing in the absence of a physician.”

Al-Balkhi teaches us to build our first aid kit of positive memories and thoughts during times of mental health. Modern-day science has also shown that experiencing positive emotions helps to protect and recover from stressful life events. Al-Balkhi encourages us to purposefully experience positive emotions and to make good memories that can be remembered and ‘relived’ when needed. Scientific research has shown that the experience of positive emotions (Leger et al, 2020) and memories (Speer & Delgado, 2017) have a protective effect and increase recovery from (acute) stress.

Tip 4: hire a coach/advisor

Although a big part of Al-Balkhi’s book discusses the ways one can improve their mental health on their own, he presses the importance of external guidance:

“The benefit one obtains externally from advice and counselling is more useful than a person’s internal attempt (at treatment) through generating his own therapeutic thoughts. This is due to two reasons. First, man in general accepts from others what he does not accept from himself. His reasoning and thought are intermixed with his passions, each implicated by the other. Second, one suffering from painful psychological symptoms is so occupied and overpowered by them that he cannot clearly think how to overcome them. He needs others to show him the way to recovery.”

People are quick to accept their own beliefs about themselves, be they positive or negative, without ever reflecting if they are rationally valid or not. Al-Balkhi states the importance of having a coach that is not impacted by your emotions or irrational beliefs that can help to objectively reflect upon your thoughts, beliefs and behaviour. As Al-Balkhi states, people also tend to be more willing to accept advice

Nowadays the effects of stress on cognitive performance is extensively researched and documented. When you are emotional like rage, panic or despair, clear thinking is out of the picture (Morgado & Cerqueira, 2018). Scientists have also shown that lesser but chronic levels of stress negatively impact your ability to ‘think straight’. The danger of chronic stress compared to more intense emotional states is that it can exist unnoticed by the individual. A trained coach can help you detect previously unnoticed but harmful chronic stress.

Conclusion.

Al-Balkhi was one of the first in written history to write about psychological techniques that are still used today. Al-Balkhi presses the importance of pro-actively working on mental resilience when you are in a state of good mental health. He advises us to:

  1. Create a realistic worldview and mentally prepare and plan for setbacks whilst creating your normal way of life
  2. Incrementally expose yourself to mental stressors in the same way you would train your body to endure physical stressors
  3. Built a ‘mental health first aid kit’ by making good memories that can be brought up and induce positive emotions during times of stress.
  4. Working on your mental resilience is not something you should do alone. A coach can help you see and accept things about yourself that might not be possible with mere self-reflection.

References:

  • Awaad, R., & Ali, S. (2015). Obsessional Disorders in al-Balkhi′s 9th century treatise: Sustenance of the Body and Soul. Journal of Affective Disorders, 180, 185-189. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.03.003
  • Awaad, R., & Ali, S. (2016). A modern conceptualization of phobia in al-Balkhi’s 9th century treatise: Sustenance of the Body and Soul. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 37, 89-93. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2015.11.003
  • Ainslea Cross & David Sheffield (2019) Mental contrasting for health behaviour change: a systematic review and meta-analysis of effects and moderator variables, Health Psychology Review, 13:2, 209-225, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2019.1594332
  • Badri, Malik. Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: the Cognitive Behavior Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician (p. 34). International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).
  • Leger, K.A., Charles, S.T. & Almeida, D.M. Positive Emotions Experienced on Days of Stress are Associated with Less Same-Day and Next-Day Negative Emotion. Affec Sci 1, 20–27 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42761-019-00001-w
  • Morgado P and Cerqueira JJ (2018) Editorial: The Impact of Stress on Cognition and Motivation. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 12:326. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00326
  • Speer, M. E., & Delgado, M. R. (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature human behaviour1(5), 0093. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0093

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