Panic attack at the podium: A blessing in disguise

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Last Updated on 8th October 2021

Rizwan Khan, Missionary, Texas

The first time I had a panic attack was during my student days in Jamia (Canada), when I was unexpectedly told to lead congregational prayer at the mosque. 

The regular imams weren’t there that day and I must have been put on the list of backup imams. In Fajr, a longer portion of the Holy Quran is to be recited. I kept thinking I was going to forget a verse, or if I made a mistake, someone was going to correct me and then I might forget more. 

First, my heart started beating at full speed, then I couldn’t exhale anymore, then I physically couldn’t recite. I was barely able to get a couple of syllables out with each breath. I couldn’t do anything, so I went into ruku. It was a disturbing experience. I don’t remember how I got through the second rak‘at. For some reason, nobody mentioned anything afterwards. Maybe they thought I was getting emotional in prayer, but I was just trying to get oxygen.

I tried to avoid situations where I might be unexpectedly told to publicly recite or speak after that. 

Once, I came into the mosque and noticed the person on duty in the front row was looking for someone to lead the prayer. He saw me and I saw him, and I went straight to the back corner of the mosque and tried to start reading nawafil. I thought if I started my prayer, then I would be safe and nobody could tell me to do anything. I had got my hands up for takbir when I heard him say “Rizwan!” from across the mosque, “Oh my goodness”, I thought. 

I didn’t know I was having panic attacks. I just thought I hyperventilated sometimes when I was nervous. Aside from these occasional situations, it didn’t disrupt life much, until recently. 

During Covid-19, our mosque was closed for about a full year. When it reopened, I started having panic attacks almost every time I led Jumuah prayers. Maybe it was a combination of wearing a mask while publicly speaking and being uncomfortable around people after such a long separation. 

I’m not sure what the cause was. 

Watching someone have a panic attack while he is publicly speaking is probably about as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for the person. Imagine being in a programme and the speaker stops speaking. After a few seconds of silence, everyone starts looking to see what’s wrong; after a few more seconds it gets uncomfortable and after that, everyone starts looking at each other. 

Now imagine that the speaker is barely able to breathe, but they can’t just end the speech early and leave because they have to get through the sermon, khutbah thaniya and then lead the prayer. There is no exit strategy, so I just kept pushing through it. 

Our local sadr, an anesthesiologist, whose job is to know when someone is about to lose consciousness, came up to the podium in the middle of one Jumuah sermon and asked if I was okay. At that point, I started feeling bad for what I was putting the audience through. 

I didn’t know what to do. I kept wondering at what point I should write to Huzooraa that I was no longer able to do my duties. A murabbi has to be able to publicly speak and lead prayers; that’s a part of his responsibilities. If I was physically unable to do that, then I didn’t know how I could function. 

Before Jumuah, I started to wish I would get sick; if only I could come down with a fever or start vomiting and get to stay home.

Once, I was sitting in the mosque before Jumuah about to go up to the podium and thought to myself, “This is crazy! How am I about to go up there? I should tell somebody that I’ve lost my ability to do this, that I can’t do this anymore.” 

But then, I thought that we don’t back down, and we don’t get scared and run away. As long as we are assigned to do something, we do it. If I was deemed unfit, then I would be asked to step down, but I wouldn’t myself step back from the responsibility I was assigned.

Although this experience was mentally draining, it was spiritually helping me in ways that I desperately needed. 

Having a panic attack in front of an audience while publicly speaking is a unique feeling of mortification. It’s a moment of weakness in front of people who expect me to be strong, a feeling of being exposed in front of people I want to hide myself from. But mainly, it is feeling embarrassed in front of people who, deep down, I may want respect from; it is being torn down in front of people who, deep down, I could think I am better than. It’s an experience that takes the arrogance and showing off that I have in me, and turns it into a weapon to flog me with. 

If I was arrogant to someone who I thought I was better than, it would be all the more painful to be so vulnerable in front of them. If I wanted to show off in front of people so they would respect me and give me status, then it would be all the more painful to be in a moment of such weakness in front of them. 

I can otherwise ignore my arrogance and my need to show off and pretend it isn’t there. I pretend it isn’t there because it’s shallow and ugly and it’s uncomfortable to look at. But in the middle of a panic attack at the podium, there is no pretending it isn’t there. In that moment, when everything else gets blurry, it’s the only thing I can see clearly.

بَلِ‭ ‬الۡاِنۡسَانُ‭ ‬عَلٰي‭ ‬نَفۡسِهٖ‭ ‬بَصِيۡرَةٌ

وَّ‭ ‬لَوۡ‭ ‬اَلۡقٰي‭ ‬مَعَاذِيۡرَهٗ

“Nay, man is fully aware of his own self. Even though he puts forward his excuses.” (Surah al-Qiyamah, Ch.75: V.15-16)

Being a murabbi has blessings, but it also has trials for me, and one of them is having to be the centre of attention from time to time. If I was working in the kitchen helping make food for an event, the fact is that my work would be of just as much value in the sight of Allah as giving a speech for the programme. 

The Holy Prophetsa said:

 “The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions”.(Sahih al-Bukhari,Kitab Bad‘ al-Wahi) 

However, when I am at the podium, my contribution to the programme is seen by others, and so it is more likely to be appreciated and praised. Slowly, I can begin to think my contribution is more valuable than the person in the kitchen. I can begin to think that I deserve to be appreciated, that I am entitled to a status, and that I am more important than the person in the kitchen. 

Being in the limelight has to be treated like being under radiation. If I don’t protect myself from it, I’ll start developing spiritual illnesses and cancers.

Hazrat Imam Ghazalirh said:

“The Holy Prophetsa said: ‘The greatest of what I fear most for my followers is riya, or show of piety and secret greed.’ It is more secret than the movement of black ants on a smooth stone in the darkest night. For that reason, the experienced, learned men have become baffled to save themselves from its injuries. By it, the religious men are tried as they want to get respect from the people for their learning and piety. They wish to get praise and respect in meetings.” (Summary of introduction to Chapter 8 of Book 3 of Ihya Ulum-ud-Din)

Arrogance and showing off come from our fundamental need to be praised. This need cannot be suppressed; it can only be channelled. When we seek praise from people, we show off and when we praise ourselves, we become arrogant. Islam teaches that we can only overcome these flaws by fulfilling these needs by seeking praise from Allah and by praising Allah. This is why we are taught to say the words “alhamdulillah” – “all praise belongs to Allah” – so frequently, because these words are an antidote to these two basic sins.

“Interpreted subjectively, الحمدللّٰه would mean that God alone has the right to bestow true praise.”(Five-Volume Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 11)

When we show off, our desire for receiving praise is misplaced. When we say “alhamdulillah” subjectively, we remind ourselves that rather than seeking praise from people, we should seek praise from only Allah Almighty because that’s the only appreciation that really matters. 

“Interpreted objectively, it would signify that true praise is due to God alone. The praise due to other beings and objects is only borrowed and secondary.” (Ibid)

When we are arrogant, our desire to give praise is misplaced. When we say “alhamdulillah” objectively, we remind ourselves that rather than praising ourselves, we should realise that only Allah the Almighty is worthy of true praise and we are insignificant in front of Him.

I’ve often said “alhamdulillah” with these meanings in mind, but if I wasn’t comfortable with really humbling myself when I said it, I had the luxury of saying it theoretically. But when I had panic attacks at the podium, there was no longer any theory – I was humbled by force. 

Although going through a tribulation like this is uncomfortable, the progress that is made during that time is incomparable to any other time. When I looked within myself, I saw that I did want status among people, and deep down, I did think I was special and exceptional. 

Being in a position where my work was over-appreciated was not helping. The limelight has been giving me radiation poisoning. 

I hated how petty my feelings could sometimes be, wanting to be more appreciated than someone else or thinking I was better than someone. I hated how I wondered if people would be impressed by a speech I gave, or worrying afterwards whether they liked it, and me, or not. But after I started having panic attacks at the podium, I didn’t worry about any of those things. I was just happy if I could breathe enough to be able to speak. I didn’t worry about whether people liked or respected me, because whatever imagined status I earned could be shattered anytime with one panic attack. 

Despite how distressing the feelings of dread, nervousness, panic and exhaustion were, the spiritual pain of facing my own pettiness and vanity and arrogance were more unpleasant. Even as I was sitting at the podium dreading the thought of standing up and speaking, I realised that if I had to choose between the mortification of a panic attack in front of everybody, or having to live with these spiritual flaws, I’d rather take the panic attacks. Somehow there was more peace of mind in that.

This is why I have, so far, not been able to really pray to Allah the Almighty to be saved from this. This experience feels like a medicine which, while bitter, has been more effective in breaking my arrogance and need to show off than anything else. Whenever I would try to pray to be saved from this, I would remember a hadith: 

Ata bin Abi Rabah narrated that Hazrat Ibn-e-Abbasra said to him, “Shall I show you a woman of the people of Paradise?” He replied, said, “Yes.” Hazrat Ibn-e-Abbasra said, “This black lady came to the Prophetsa and said, ‘I get attacks of epilepsy and my body becomes uncovered; please invoke Allah for me.’ The Prophetsa said, ‘If you wish, be patient and you will have Paradise; and if you wish, I will invoke Allah to cure you.’ She said, ‘I will remain patient,’ and added, ‘but I become uncovered, so please invoke Allah for me that I may not become uncovered.’ So he invoked Allah for her.” (Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)

When I would pray, the most I could ask was what was for the best, and that I did not become uncovered. If it is possible that bearing this difficulty with patience is the way to Paradise, then it’s more than worth it. At first, this experience felt to me like the end of the world, but it’s clear that in the end, it will look insignificant.

Eventually, my wife and I were able to figure out what was happening, and with some thought exercises that psychologists recommend, it no longer happens as often. However, it is still there, and when I find my mind again going towards shallow thoughts, I can’t help but be grateful that I have the looming possibility of a panic attack at the podium to help keep me in check. 

Now what I need to think about is if I am proud of this essay I’ve written on the harms of pride.

The Promised Messiahas said:

“You may not perhaps fully realise what is arrogance. Then listen to me as I speak under the direction of God. Everyone who looks down upon a brother because he esteems himself more learned, or wiser, or more proficient than him is arrogant, inasmuch as he does not esteem God as the Fountainhead of all intelligence and knowledge and deems himself as something. 

“Has God not the power to afflict him with lunacy and to bestow upon his brother, whom he accounts small, better intelligence and knowledge and higher proficiency than him? So also he who, out of a mistaken conception of his wealth, or status, or dignity, looks down upon his brother, is arrogant because he forgets that his wealth, status and dignity were bestowed upon him by God. He is blind and does not realize that God has power to so afflict him that in a moment he might be reduced to the condition of the lowest of the low, and to bestow upon his brother whom he esteems low greater wealth than him.” (Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, pp. 355-356)

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