From a physical health standpoint, fasting has several positive effects, from weight loss and increased metabolism to disease prevention. Less talked about are the gains for mental health.
Resisting short-term satisfaction for a long-term purpose is a massive test of willpower, but it comes with a sense of control and gratification or, as Dubai resident Farha Ali, 35, calls it: “a sense of completion”.
Gratitude and resilience
Ali credits fasting for both spiritual gains and shaping her personality. “It started with the feeling of achievement at iftar each day. The resilience I built as a teenager and in my twenties was due to self-control during fasting. The complete change in routine helped me be more adaptable to change.
“I also felt my threshold for stress increased, which helped in high-pressure career roles. This one month of Ramadan helps me find more peace, and evaluate and grow more than the other 11 months combined. You have water and food in front of you, nobody’s watching and you’re still not reaching for it — that’s quite something.”
Ali says she’s not impervious to getting irritable and moody at times during the fasting period. But refocusing has helped, and she does so by thinking of those who are less fortunate.
“Realising the hunger pangs I feel for a few hours is what some people experience all year was a game-changer," she says.
The result is a deep feeling of gratitude — a state of mind that has been linked to greater happiness by psychologists around the world.
Ali, who started fasting at the age of 12, also believes mental health care has to start early, and says easing into fasting as a child made all the difference. Starting with an incremental hour each year helped by taking the pressure off and instead building excitement and self-esteem.
“I remember feeling good about challenging myself, about being able to join my parents and older siblings. I liked being given the choice to do it; there were no expectations and no guilt if I failed, and that helped boost my sense of self and mental state as a whole.”
Journaling and charity
Sharjah resident Annie Batool, 25, says her anxiety reduces as Ramadan goes on. “Probably because of the lack of sugared coffees and sugary foods, but also probably because I find myself being thankful for all the privilege I have, to get to indulge in so much food and drink outside of Ramadan. Slowing down during the month helps me feel like I’m undergoing a reset mentally, an overhaul of sorts. A way of stopping and smelling the rooh afza.” Or Vimto, if you prefer.
Batool has had her share of struggles, with the biggest one being a disrupted sleep schedule.
“It can affect your mood and agility. And the caffeine withdrawals are brutal," she says.
So she turned to journaling her Ramadan journey “to see how far I’d grown as a person. How much forgiveness had I practised, how much kindness and giving? I recorded my good deeds so I could feel motivated to my best self. That coupled with charity was therapeutic for me.”
Self-care, connections and precautions
Nashwa Tantawy, counselling psychologist at Open Minds Centre, says because fasting can be challenging, it increases the sense of reward, achievement, pride and ability to control. “Moreover, it has positive impacts on mental capacity due to the physical changes in the body during fasting.”
Tantawy says spirituality is proven to have a positive impact on well-being. “It can be a supporting factor in dealing with our stressors in life, along with giving us a sense of acceptance, peace, hopefulness, purpose and forgiveness. During Ramadan, several practices can emphasise this impact, including fasting, praying, charity and family connections. This is also a chance to reduce unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking.”
Tantawy cautions there are some people with psychological and mental conditions who can find fasting challenging, including those with eating disorders and mood disorders such as depression.
“In such cases, the changes in sleep and eating routine can be a trigger to worsen the case, so an assessment of the person’s condition by a professional, along with listening to his or her own cues should not be neglected.
“Adjusting to a new routine is not easy for the human body and mind. It takes time to regulate physical and mental activities after a major disruption in the daily routine.
Tantawy says those who fast can take various steps to protect their mental health. “First, take care of your body. In dialectical behavioural therapy, there is a skill set called the Please Skills. It is based on the concept that taking good care of your body decreases emotional vulnerability and increases willpower and a sense of control.
“Also, focus on the spiritual connection, the sense of giving and the connection with family and friends, which have a positive impact on our mental health.
At the end of the day, it is all a matter of perception, she says. “If we perceive the holy month as an opportunity for a new start, an experience to enhance our resilience and relationship to ourselves, others and God, it will make a big difference to the positive emotional, psychological and physical benefits of this wonderful experience.”