It was when I was stuck in traffic, in a taxi on the way to pick up my eight-month-old son that it happened. With nursery closing time fast approaching and the weight of work still heavy on my shoulders, out of nowhere… I just lost it. I’m usually a calm, polite sort of person, but there I was, lecturing the taxi driver on his poorly chosen route, and huffing and puffing like I had a serious breathing problem.
It’s embarrassing to talk about now the red mist has cleared, but a quick poll of the office reveals that I’m not alone. One of us admits she surprised herself by “having a go” at a petrol attendant one day, while another reveals that she went ballistic at a car that cut her up, only to discover that the driver was a friend of her brother’s (who actually recognised her, flailing hand movements and all...).
So what’s going on? Where do these random acts of stressiness stem from? “Snapping at people or losing it behind the wheel shows us that we use these situations as tension release mechanisms, because these feelings have built up within us,” says Helen Williams, director of LifeWorks Dubai, and Aquarius’s counselling ambassador. If you’ve ever had an uncharacteristic outburst like mine – whether it’s with a stranger, a loved one or at work – it means that you’re feeling the pressure. And so is everyone else.
“Many people in Dubai are in denial about their stress levels,” adds Helen. “Stress often creeps up on us and simply becomes our ‘normal’. It’s very sad as much can be done to help, and yet many people simply believe they are powerless to change.”
The grind behind the glamour
‘A tax-free salary and year-round sunshine in the coastal city of Dubai’. That was the line in the job advert that prompted 29-year-old British ex-marketing executive Nicola Wilson* to leave her life in Birmingham, UK, and move to the UAE four years ago. But what sounded like it was going to be a chilled-out beach-bum lifestyle soon turned out to be very different. “My plane touched down in Dubai at 5am, and I was asked to start at my new office at 8am that same day – my new boss said that’s what they all had done,” says Nicola. “I was on the ground meeting new contacts from 9am, networking at events in the evening, and then writing reports up until 2am.
And the next day it began again. I was expected to work most weekends, too.” Beaches? What beaches? In the first few months of her time in Dubai, Nicola didn’t see anything other than a computer screen and echoy exhibition halls. “Looking back on it now – trying to prove myself at work while setting up a new home and adjusting to my new surroundings – I was stressed out beyond belief, and probably pushing myself harder than was necessary. But there was no way I was going to admit that.”
In her eagerness to make her move a success, Nicola was falling victim to a kind of stress that experts agree is unique to the lifestyle many expats lead in the UAE. Dr Saliha Afridi, managing director of The LightHouse Arabia and Aquarius psychology ambassador says, “Many of the demands of Dubai are hidden behind its beautiful resorts and glitzy buildings, so people move with certain expectations. But in reality, Dubai is a young country that’s still building and growing rapidly – which can be as stressful as living on quicksand.”
Despite Nicola’s best efforts, she eventually reached the point of burnout. “It was a Saturday night, when I found myself thinking that a hop over the balcony might be preferable to another week of work in the morning, that I realised I had to do something about it.”
The new normal
While Nicola’s husband’s job as a banker meant that she had the option to leave her job as a way of resolving her stress, most of us don’t have that choice. In a 2013 survey**, 60 per cent of people living in the UAE described themselves as either ‘stressed’ or ‘extremely stressed’, and of all the participants who had a health complaint, the majority were stress-related illnesses like anxiety and depression.
“We live in a day and age where stress is seen as something that’s needed to perform in the workplace, and to cope with the pace at which we often find ourselves on a daily basis,” says Dr Pamela Leader, managing director of chiropractic and physiotherapy health clinic, Chiropractic Dubai. “People think that it’s part of the normal pressures that come with a particular job or situation and they ignore any symptoms they might have. The stress gradually builds up and it can strike out of nowhere, leading to health problems that can contribute to something as serious as a heart attack, for example.”
Although we all know stress isn’t good for us, people rarely realise that their emotional state could be putting them on the brink of a physical collapse, says Dr Nibras Sufeian Salih, specialist family medicine doctor at Medcare Medical Centre in JBR.
“Mental stress can cause physical stress – the medical term for it is somatisation. So emotional stress can manifest as chest pain, tiredness, dizziness, backache, nausea, headaches, depression, and to a point it can push the patient into a panic attack,” she says. “Stress is a dangerous condition that needs early recognition, diagnosis and management. As a family physician, I often have to look beneath the presenting medical complaints to seek the untold stories that may be the main cause of the medical disorder.”
Constantly feeling tired, frequent colds and infections due to a compromised immune system and even weight gain around your middle can all be signs that your body is struggling to cope with stress, adds Dr Leader. “Excess fat around your waist and the face, including puffy eyes, can gradually develop – laid down for survival due to the constant stress – and can be a sign of chronic adrenal fatigue,” says Dr Leader.
The realities of modern life mean it’s harder for us to notice the signals that we might need to slow down, says LifeWorks’ Williams. “With the immediacy of mobile phones, instant messaging and emails, the loss of a clear boundary between home and family life, career life and self and relationship life means that there is no respite from pressure. Many people move continually between hard work and hard play and do not have the downtime or space that is necessary for stress repair. This way of living becomes their normal.” It’s something we can get addicted to, she adds. “Many people have become adrenaline junkies without even being aware of it.”
A Dubai phenomenon?
But is there something specific to Dubai that makes the city a particularly stressful place to live? Dr Afridi thinks so. “I believe in the UAE stress is more of an issue than in other parts of the world, and even more so in Dubai than other emirates because the lifestyle is a lot more fast-paced,” she says.
“One of the biggest indicators of happiness is friends and family, and many of those who have moved to the UAE are away from their networks, which results in feelings of loneliness, sadness, and distress,” she explains.
“They may start to compare themselves to others around them and link their esteem to groups that they cannot necessarily afford to be a part of. Couple this with a high cost of living and schooling, and you find so many people who are living outside of their means. Financial pressure can be one of the biggest stressors people report when they come into therapy.”
The luxurious lifestyle here – or at least the pressure to create the perception of one – is another characteristic of Dubai-based stress, says Williams. “In expat communities, the search for a sense of belongingness is more acute than it would be in our home countries, usually because there we already feel connected. This search for belongingness means that we often change ourselves to be accepted. I have spoken with many women who tell me they would never have placed such importance on beauty regimes or fashion items back home, but feel compelled to do so here to fit in. Men tell me the same thing about clothes, career choices and cars.”
Although not everyone may fall prey to these sorts of social pressures, job pressure is a reality for almost all expats, says Dr Leader. “For many, losing their job may mean returning home, where work may be very hard to find, or be paid a lot less,” she says.
Dubai’s relative newness as a country and its multicultural nature are also possible stress factors, adds Dr Afridi. “Many people find the changing roads and the changing rules to be very stressful. People can also feel that they do not know their rights, or perhaps that they do not have their rights enforced. Individuals also report feeling very stressed about having to decode so many cultural and language differences,” says Dr Afridi. “The more ethnocentric a person is [feeling like they have arrived in Dubai from the best home country] the more stressful it is for them to adapt to UAE and its culture.”
But the fact is, unless you’re living in a war zone, stress is never only about the country you’re living in. We’ve all chosen to move to the UAE because of the many benefits it offers us, and any stress is a result of the lifestyle you lead, and how you manage the obstacles – which would come up no matter where you are based. Being more analytical of our behaviour, and learning to pick up on stress signals before they become something worse, can help.
Dr Afridi says. “People tend to be hyper focused on the external sources of stress rather than noting what it is doing to their body. For example, a person will be focused on the tyrannical boss, rather than noticing that every time they are around this person their body stiffens up, they feel anxious, they are losing sleep and have withdrawn from their social life because they do not find much joy in it. I find that generally people don’t make the link.”
Williams adds, “It’s really important to know your own limits and abilities to handle problem situations. Everyone differs greatly in this respect. Your particular stress tolerance level is greatly influenced by your attitude and outlook on life and your support network. At LifeWorks we run many courses to reduce stress, as well as individual training sessions to help people identify their stress.”
So, the next time you find yourself snapping at somebody, ask yourself what are you really reacting to? “When our emotional reactions appear larger than the situation warrants, it’s a clear sign that we need to investigate what we are not allowing ourselves to feel,” says Williams. “You may be suppressing feelings that are simply doing their job as signposts and indicators that you need to listen to yourself.”