DUBAI // Religion and family support are key factors in helping female Emirati students cope with stress, according to an academic at Zayed University. Dr Carol Campbell, who has embarked on the country's first comprehensive study of student stress, said most research on the topic had been carried out in the West and tended to focus on men.
So far, Dr Campbell, a UK-registered psychology practitioner and an associate professor, has held five focus groups and conducted in-depth interviews with 10 students at the university. Next, she will distribute a larger questionnaire before expanding her research to students at the Higher Colleges of Technology. Despite the contrast in countries and cultures, the causes of stress among students are turning out to be similar to those she found in a previous study at the University of Teesside in Britain. There, women complained mainly about heavy and difficult workloads, deadline, time management and family pressures.
However, the students tend to deal with their pressures differently. "Students here draw on their faith much more and it plays a big part in managing their stress," said Dr Campbell. "There was a common theme of the use of prayer, which wasn't prominent in my UK research. Also, there is more emphasis on the extended family relationships than in the UK, where friends or even partners play a more dominant role."
One student in her study had a spiritual connection that was very important to her, one that helped her feel that she was not alone. Another drew comfort from prayer in times of worry. One specifically said: "When I feel stressed, the first thing I do is read Du'aa al Hamm, supplication for the stressed. I believe this du'aa will relieve the kind of pressure I'm feeling and make me feel better." Dr Campbell said that while students in Britain saw exercise as one way to alleviate stress, the same was not always applicable here, where many women said their religion prevented them from doing aerobic exercise to music.
Conversely, men here show similarities to those in Britain, by demonstrating risk behaviours such as driving dangerously and smoking. The research could have wider implications, perhaps eventually casting light on the increase in depression and addictive behaviour, such as overeating and shopping, in the UAE. Dr Leena al Amiri, associate professor in psychiatry at the UAE University, said students were becoming much more aware of the importance of dealing with stress, by seeking professional help such as the university's mentoring and counselling services.
Dr al Amiri, an Emirati, also believes that religion plays a role. "As people become more stressed they do become more in tune with God," she said. Dr Campbell has also found that, as Emirati students are more likely to be married with children, another cause of stress is balancing their studies with family life, while students in Britain would marry later. She has based her research on theories by the US academic Shelley Taylor, from the University of California, whose work suggests that women "tend and befriend" while men choose "fight and flight". This means that women seek solace from those around them, building support networks and discussing problems, while men would flee from a problem or demonstrate risk-taking behaviour.
"From an evolutionary perspective, it would've been disadvantageous for a woman to run away as it would put her offspring in danger," said Dr Campbell. "If she were to fight, she risked dying, then, in turn, her children would die." She cited the work of the Women's Institute in Britain during the Second World War as an example of women naturally gravitating to a support network. "Women are still predominantly the carers, both formally and informally," she said.