Self-discipline is brought into focus every year during Ramadan: two women tell Stylist how exercising willpower positively impacts their mental health
Self-discipline often feels like a trait that some people intuitively “get” and others lack. It can get a bad rap as something that stops us from indulging in the things we enjoy. While it may not always feel good in the moment, honing our self-control, willpower and motivation can boost our sense of self-achievement in the long run, improving our confidence and ultimately making us happier.
For Muslim people around the world, self-discipline is brought into focus every year during the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which culminates with Eid al-Fitr on 2 May. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during this period Muslims who are able to do so will abstain from eating or drinking between dawn and sunset each day, before breaking the fast with the communal meal, iftar.
Ramadan’s fasting element teaches principles like empathy and gratitude for what God provides. It’s about prioritising yourself without outside support or persuasion.
“Self-discipline is the ability to exercise agency and control over our decisions, often intentionally forgoing instant gratification in the short term for more meaningful satisfaction in the longer term,” psychiatrist and author Saumya Dave tells Stylist.
Achieving this on a daily basis can be challenging, and during Ramadan, it’s a real test of how someone is able to control their mind and actions.
“Self-discipline in the context of Ramadan means valuing body and soul purification,” explains marriage and family therapist Andrea Dindinger. “Committing to not eating or drinking anything during these hours not only requires self-discipline but also having your value system in alignment with your commitment to your religious practices.”
Self-discipline can also influence our brain chemistry and mental health. A long line of studies has found that people who practise self-control report feeling happier, perhaps as a result of using willpower, which is reportedly linked to success and the ability to focus on positive gains. Self-discipline is also linked to dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone that provides our brains with stimulation. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting pleasure or a reward and research shows that by developing self-control and managing our dopamine, we experience greater fulfilment.
Many Muslims find practising self-discipline over Ramadan goes hand in hand with their mental health. “Ramadan is a month-long boot camp where you are giving up your normal sleeping and eating habits in order to achieve your goals,” lawyer and content creator Rosy Pirani tells Stylist.
Pirani defines self-discipline as when her intentions align with her goals and she is not distracted by temptation or impulses. During Ramadan, she writes down her daily goals, such as praying five times a day (as is customary in the Islamic faith) and how much she plans to donate to charity. She uses an app that notifies her when it’s prayer time and she keeps her social media following accountable for their own prayers.
“When I’m disciplined, I feel in control of my actions and less likely to feel anxious,” Pirani says. “When you see yourself accomplishing even minor daily goals, that success creates a lasting feeling of happiness.”
Maryam Asadullah, a blogger and former project manager, looks after her mental health during Ramadan by actively seeking ways to remain motivated, like setting goals to exercise, creating habits and setting boundaries. “When you choose to do better for yourself it has a direct impact on your mental and physical wellbeing,” she says. “During Ramadan, it’s important to be passionate about your worship. When you pray, pray with your whole heart and practise meditation. This month brings a lot of invitations to social events, but take days out for yourself.”
The pandemic and the burnout that followed have both had a significant impact on people’s mental health. Resources such as connection and community-building can improve daily life.
“Local mosque and Muslim Facebook groups are a great way to connect with others during Ramadan,” says Pirani. “Mosques offer a nightly taraweeh [prayer]. Synchronized prayer creates a sense of community and a feeling that you are part of something bigger. Local mosques also collect donations and host volunteer projects.”
Ramadan is a special time, and it’s also an opportunity to learn about one’s evolving journey with willpower. Regardless of what religion or culture you belong to, marriage and family therapist Andrea Dindinger’s offers the following recommendations for building up self-discipline over time.
Four ways to successfully build self-discipline
Change the narrative to inform your goals
“If you are trying to quit smoking and someone offers you a cigarette, change your response from, ‘No thanks, I am trying to quit,’ to “No thank you, I don’t smoke.’ Changing how one identifies makes it easier to stay committed to a goal or task.”
Link current habits to new habits of self-care
“If your normal habit is to reach for your phone when you wake up and your new goal is to begin a gratitude practice, link the two activities. That way, if you are reaching for your phone, find a way to journal your gratitude practice and continue practising self-discipline this way.”
Believe that self-discipline practices can be pleasurable
“Set reasonable boundaries and link practices you enjoy with those you are trying to get into a habit of being better at. For example, if you are trying to do more cardio, make an agreement with yourself that you’ll only watch one of your favourite shows while you’re on the treadmill. Your brain will thank you when you link self-discipline with a pleasurable activity or task.”
Remind yourself to be patient and that things are temporary
“Exercising self-discipline will not happen overnight, so keep in mind that any pain or discomfort you feel along the way is only temporary. Reframing the context will help you preserve your self-discipline commitments.”