When sisters Sophiya and Sarah Faizal experienced mental health problems, they found there were few resources catering to young people. On a lark they started their own wellness platform on Instagram and have built a dedicated following with their helpful and quirky tips and tricks, which recently included all the places to try forest bathing in the depth of a UAE desert summer. The sisters, who are both in their twenties, grew up in an Indian family based in Sharjah. On the Livehealthy podcast they explained how what started as a pastime has grown into a business, which includes a new bricks-and-mortar cafe and gathering space they will open in Dubai’s Jumeirah neighborhood in September.
How did Soph Wellness begin?
Sophiya: For us, the definition of health was being fit. We played tennis and were both very fit. But when we went to university we both faced mental health challenges and we realized that good health is about so much more than looking good and being active. It’s about what you eat, how you sleep, your hormones. We wouldn’t have known any of this if we had not faced what we faced and we realized there were not enough conversations happening around the subject and that the younger generations especially need to know about it.
Sarah: I studied graphic design at university and for my finals project, I took pictures of Sophiya, created a dummy Instagram account and made it public with the name Soph Wellness because Sophia means wisdom in Greek.
Sophiya: I was furious! I had no plans for what to post on it but Sarah said, “I’ll help you.” We enjoyed creating content and found that a lot of people resonated with our message.
Sarah: Our dad was pre-diabetic and around the time we were dealing with anxiety and depression. Our dad’s yoga teacher told him to eat ginger and garlic every day and switch his carbs from rice and wheat to millet and to see what happens. In two months, his pre-diabetes was reversed, his cholesterol was so much better and he stopped taking his medication. So we saw how impactful having this information could be.
What sort of mental health issues did you face?
Sophiya: I studied materials engineering at university in the US and in my third year I had such bad exam anxiety that one semester I failed all my exams. I studied, I knew everything, but in the exam I blanked and it turned into a panic attack. My body just froze with fear.
I tried counseling at the university but it didn’t really help. When I came home, my mom suggested hypnotherapy. I saw a therapist for 10 sessions and the next semester I got all As and Bs and was able to manage my anxiety and fear.
As the eldest of four kids, I felt I had to be a role model for my siblings. But at university I had time on my own to think about what did I really want to do, what did I really like? There was a tug-of-war going on in my mind. I know what’s expected of me but I want to explore.
After university I worked in the US for a year, but after I moved back to the UAE and was living at home, I started to dissociate from myself. I couldn’t get out of bed and I didn’t care.
I went back to the same therapist but I wondered what else I could do to help myself. I had some gut issues, so I saw a nutritionist. I started noticing things — for example, when I eat junk food, I get anxiety.
That’s when I realized I needed to focus on myself. It’s not about what others want. It’s not selfish to put myself first — it means I can help others better. I was the first one in my family to say I had a mental health issue. It’s just not talked about in Indian families.
Sarah: I have a completely different story. I went through depression at 21 — I’m now 24. I had a normal childhood, I had friends, I was happy and nothing really bothered me, but one summer on vacation I just stopped talking. For four or five days I was silent. I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone. When we returned, I saw the same therapist as Sophiya. Through talking to him and digging deep, I realized so much was linked to childhood stuff that had happened to me, which to me didn’t seem significant but when you break it down, you realize this is the result or linked to those things. It’s eye-opening.
From the age of 15, I had worked out every day and I ate clean most of the time but still my digestion was bad. I had acid reflux every day. But as soon as I felt better mentally, all that started getting better too. This all happened around the same as the thing with dad. It was a revelation.
What do people in your age group struggle with?
Sophiya: They need to feel heard. Half the problem is that kids don’t feel heard.
Sarah: We see body image to be a big issue. People message us, even 11-year-olds, saying they don’t want to go out because they feel ugly.
To add fuel to the fire, young people feel they can’t talk about their mental health issues because they are not going through the same problems as adults. One of the biggest things we faced was guilt. We had everything we needed for a comfortable life. We had friends and a supportive family so we felt guilty about saying we had problems. Having gone through that made us want to share our experience and to create this outlet for others to say, “I feel this way too.”
How does seeing those messages affect you?
Sophiya: Initially, we would get really affected, hearing so much about people’s lives.
Sarah: That’s why we did first-aid training for mental health. We learned that, yes, you have to feel empathy. But it is not your responsibility to cure the person. We help as much as we can but we are not therapists. We can provide information about resources.
Sophiya: We don’t want to say anything that could mislead but we can help find the right people to go to.
How do you find your content?
Sophiya: We have five pillars — food, movement, self-care, mental wellbeing and technology. Because that’s what we felt helped us find our balance. Every few weeks we sit and brainstorm. We don’t really have a structure. Whatever topics we decide on, we have two people — a nutritionist and health coach — to verify the information. That’s very important because we don’t want to post just anything.
Sarah: Once I posted about a letter I wrote to myself. I wanted to see how people might react. It got 300 shares.
What’s next for Soph Wellness?
Sophiya: We have a space opening in a villa in Jumeirah in Dubai with a cafe and some boutiques on the ground floor and a movement studio on the first floor, with everything from yoga to HIIT to barre, mostly equipment-free. There’s also a meditation room with sound baths and a treatment room for lymphatic drainage. It’s an amazing treatment for your body, but not a lot of people know about it and it’s difficult to find here, but we have shortlisted two people who do it.
The dream is eventually to have a bunch of spaces.
Sarah: What started as a university project has become my full-time job because we really believe in the idea. When people think of wellness, we want them to think of us. We want to be the brand for this region.
Sophiya and Sarah Faizal were guests on the Livehealthy podcast on July 14, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.