Mental stress echoes physical stress in our body. So why do we seem to care so little about our mental health? And when we do wake up, how can we start to feel better?
Ricardo Vargas used to be extremely stressed. An aspiring New York-based actor, the American pushed his body to the limits with fitness.
So Vargas sold all his possessions, bought a one-way ticket and flew to India with the goal of meeting a guru and changing his life.
The dangers of stress
The dangers of stress are real and the problems it causes are many.
Mayo Clinic notes that common effects of stress include everything from overeating to social withdrawal, fatigue to upset stomachs, depression to chest pain. A 2013 study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – USA notes that stress can affect our ability to control our emotions. Academy of Sciences – USA. It can lead to bone loss, according to another study published in 2019 by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. It can even mess with how our gut functions, thanks to the brain-gut link where stress can cause inflammation and infection.
Why is stress so dangerous?
“When your mind and body are under stress, your body reacts with a ‘fight or flight’ response,” explains Dr. Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia. “In this state, your system will conserve energy by basically shutting down all bodily organs and systems that aren’t essential for fighting or fleeing to conserve energy.”
Digestion, growth and reproduction are some of the processes that can be disrupted. Basically, to get the energy it needs, your body zaps it all from elsewhere.
Stress in the UAE
Stress is a global problem, but the UAE comes with its own unique stress-related challenges.
Work is a big one, notes Afridi.
“Even seasoned individuals report that they developed higher levels of stress when they moved to the UAE,” she says. “A lot of that has to do with the amount of travel that is required to serve clients in this region and the pressure that puts on their personal relationships.”
And these stresses are potentially on the rise: in the UAE, 22 percent of residents report facing unmanageable levels of stress, according to the Cigna 360⁰ Well-Being Survey 2019.
According to the survey, 91 percent of people feel stress at work and 96 percent say they can perceive the negative impact of stress from their colleagues. Finances, job security and overwork were all cited as concerns.
Those who have moved to the UAE from another country find a whole other set of challenges adjusting to the change.
“For many individuals, moving to the Middle East region can be very destabilizing,” says Afridi. People are away from their family networks and don’t have the comforting familiarity of home.
“For people in the workplace, another adjustment challenge is that they’re being asked to ‘re-anchor’ themselves to a new set of relationships.”
Add in the UAE’s demanding social scene and potential for endless late-night parties, and you have a recipe for constant stress.
Even while it’s particularly relevant in the Middle East, it’s important to always remember stress is a global, not regional problem.
“Stress has been classified as the health epidemic of the 21st century worldwide,” says Afridi. “You may have heard of people saying that ‘stress kills’.”
This doesn’t happen outright, she explains. Rather, “Stress will exacerbate and amplify the diseases that kill you.”
When Vargas flew to India, he knew something had to change – and fast. Yet the solution was all about slowing down. In India Vargas’s guru taught him how to meditate and it changed everything.
“Today I meditate as much as I exercise,” he says.
Vargas, has transitioned in his professional life, too, and is now a Dubai-based movement, meditation and yoga teacher at The Platform Studios. He explains that meditation is linked to pranayama, or breath control techniques.
“Deep, conscious breathing has been scientifically proven to reduce our stress by lowering our brain wave frequencies, which calms and clears the mind,” he says.
The power of meditation is increasingly backed up by science. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University looked through 19,000 meditation studies, ultimately examining 47 that met certain reliability-related criteria. The study, released in 2014 in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, noted that meditation can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression – in some cases, as much as antidepressants.
Dr Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, offers mindfulness meditations for free. There is also a range of apps to turn to, including the popular versions Headspace and Calm.
Alongside mindfulness and meditation, Natalia Hrapek, spa and membership supervisor at The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert, suggests aromatherapy.
“I’d recommend a nice, 30-minute warm bath with restorative and relaxing bathing oil and aromatic candles.”
Even spending time outdoors with nature can help, whether that’s going for a jog or reading a book outdoors, she adds. A report published by the University of East Anglia in 2018 looked at 140 studies across 290 million people and found that getting outdoors can reduce not only stress, but associated risks of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death and high blood pressure.
“The ultimate relaxation doesn’t focus only on the body. It has to be truly holistic, focusing on the body, mind, and soul,” Hrapek continues.
Yet managing stress is only one part of the equation. It’s also critical to understand where stress comes from in the first place.
“Stress is a reaction to an action,” says Vargas. “So if we understand the action that is producing pain, we have some insight on how to reduce the inevitable stress that follows.”
To this end, it’s important to regularly switch off, says Hrapek.
“Current technology, the fast pace of life and the abundance of information that catches our attention and contaminates the mind are among the main reasons we find it almost impossible to relax,” she notes. In the UAE, where the average person spends a quarter of their day on their phone, according to a 2018 report by YouGov, this is particularly relevant.
It’s also possible that your current fitness routine is stressing you out, says Kirsteen Thain, co-founder of GetFitChick in the UAE.
“A lot of people, especially those who love group classes, work out four to seven times a week,” she says. “Why are they destroying themselves in a workout every time?”
This kind of constant, repeated stress can constantly shock the nervous system, putting your body into a state of physiological stress with high cortisol levels, she adds.
“This can affect your hormone regulation, leading to sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, stubborn belly fat and getting sick easily,” says Thain. “I find a lot of my clients who do crazy classes multiple times a week are the ones wondering why they aren’t seeing progress.”
Instead of endlessly slamming your body with stress, Thain recommends slowing down and programming smart. Mix in strength training with aerobic and anaerobic cardio. And if you’re confused, she continues, just talk to an expert.
If you’re genuinely concerned about your stress levels LightHouse Arabia, Be Psychology Center in Dubai and Maudsley Health in Abu Dhabi are among the professional outlets offering individual therapy, group therapy, and executive coaching. Websites like BetterHelp.com also provide access to therapists online, from anywhere, for varying fees.
Ultimately, finding balance is critical for overall health. “Being in a state of chronic stress is deadly,” says Afridi.
Featured image from Cigna: digital artist Sean Sullivan applied his data visualization expertise to transform live stress readings from the human body into graphic artwork. Cigna Stress Portraits offer a real-time rendering of the physical readings of a person’s brainwaves, heart rate, and skin response. To access your own, go to Cigna-me.com
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.