A professor began his class by holding up a glass with some water in it. He held it up for all to see and asked the students, “How much do you think the glass weighs?” They retorted: “150 ml! … 200ml! … 250 ml!” the students answered. “I really don’t know unless I weigh it,” said the professor, “But my question is: “What would happen if I held it up like this for a few minutes?” “Nothing,” the students said. “Ok! What would happen if I held it up like this for an hour?” he asked. “Your arm would begin to ache,” said one of the students. “You are right, now what would happen if I held it for a day?” “Your arm could go numb, you might have severe muscle stress and paralysis and have to go to hospital for sure!” ventured another student. “Very good. But during all this, did the weight of the glass change?” he asked. They replied: “No.”

“Then what caused the arm ache and the muscle stress?” he asked. The students were puzzled. “Put the glass down!” said one of the students. “Exactly!” he said. “Life’s problems are something like this. Hold it for a few minutes in your head and they seem okay. Think of them for a long time and they begin to ache. Hold it even longer and they begin to paralyse you. You will not be able to do anything.”

While stress may be necessary for human survival, the excess of it certainly affects our health and productivity.


The earliest warning of stress are irritability, mood swings, difficulty in sleeping, fatigue, lack of concentration, extreme sensitivity to criticism, weight gain or loss, fear of failure, poor appetite or hunger and increase dependence on tranquilizers or alcohol for sleep.

Psychiatrists have identified some fifty stressors. In fact, any change, good or bad is stressful. A change in job or job description, residence, financial status, loss or gain of a family member or close friend, injury or illness, national calamity or news of riots or violence all can be stressful.


Although stress spares no one including children, certain professions get more than their share. They include the sale person, the secretary, the inner city school teacher, the air traffic controller, the medical intern, the police officer, chaplains and those handling complaint departments. It is interesting to note that qualities like being ambitious, compulsive, high achieving, and productivity oriented are looked upon as signs of efficiency by the employer, so dangerous to our health. So the art is to have these qualities, with a cool type B personality in order to live happily and have a longer life.

Psychologically the stress results from the following factors:

  • Fear of the unknown and our inability to recognize, foresee and control it.
  • Loss of things and people in our life dear to us and our inability to recover these losses or accept them.
  • Our inability to see through the future. In fact, we might be more stressed if we do see the future.
  • Conflicts between the mind and reality and our failure to accept the reality (i.e. the phase of denial). It is lack of inner peace due to our internal conflicts, which leads to the external disturbances in our behaviour and affects our health.

Let us examine how the Qur’an deals with such situations. Our losses are a part of trial for us. Allaah (Exalted and Almighty be He) says: “Be sure We will test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods (wealth) or lives or fruits, but give glad tidings to those who are steadfast, who say when afflicted with calamity, ‘To Allaah we belong and to Him is our return.” (Qur’aan 2: 155 – 156)

Whatever we are given is a gift from Allaah. We are not the owner. Everything belongs to Allaah and returns to Him. So if we do not own these things, why mourn their loss or wax proud on receiving them.

Only Allaah knows what our ultimate destiny is. We cannot peek into our future. We do, however, have a limited free will. We are free to choose between good or bad, to believe in Allaah or disbelieve in Him, but we have no control over future not related to our ability to act in the present – whether my wife will have a daughter or a son, whether his/ her eyes will be brown or black, or whether I will have an accident tomorrow or not. Worrying over such things is of no use.


It is claimed that in the United States nearly 20 million people suffer from stress in terms of attributing their illness or symptoms to it. Stress related compensation costs nearly $ 200 million per year. Loss of productivity and stress related illness directly or indirectly amounts to $ 50 billion per year (Newsweek, 25th April 1988). There is enough medical evidence to link stress to the causation of peptic ulcer, hypertension, coronary artery disease and depression.

This stressful life can produce many types of mental and physical illnesses and imposes its effects on body, psyche and mind. If the body’s immune system is allowed to deteriorate because of stress, it may lead to other serious medical conditions such as a variety of malignancies.

By Mohamed Abdalla Swaleh

Muslim Chaplain – University of Nairobi

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