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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Christmas in the desert need not be a lonely affair

How UAE residents cope with December-itis

Beca Clarke with her children, big brother Brennan and baby daughter Fern. Courtesy Beca Clarke
Beca Clarke with her children, big brother Brennan and baby daughter Fern. Courtesy Beca Clarke

It might well be “the most wonderful time of the year” for many, but for some, December ’tis the season to be struck down with the blues a lot more often than the rest of the year.

It’s not always a time that is full of festive cheer, for some Christmas can result in anxiety and depression, especially for those that find themselves far from loved ones and in need of a Christmas cheer-up.

“Friends are everything,” admits Viktoryia Vinnikava, a 30-something photographer from Belarus who is based in Abu Dhabi, who has her own antidote for loneliness. “This time of year, I go to even more Brazilian zouk dancing classes than I usually do; it helps to socialise and I don’t feel alone when I’m kept busy doing the things I love. And I have my friends; they’re my family here.”

Friends, it seems, are key; Vinnikava is not alone in falling back on her

social life to help combat the loneliness that comes hand in hand with the festive season.

Kim Simpson from the United Kingdom, who works as a tactical adviser for Abu Dhabi Police and lives alone in the emirate, says it is her Abu Dhabi family – friends and colleagues – who make the season bearable.

“I don’t often feel lonely,” she admits. “This year, I will be with friends old and new.”

Simpson and Vinnikava shared their ways of combating loneliness during the season on the popular Facebook group “Abu Dhabi Q&A”, where other expatriates admit to feeling lonely and depressed at this time of the year and members reach out to one another for ideas on how to cheer themselves up.

Maria Rathbone, who has lived in Dubai for nine years now and hasn’t been back home to England for Christmas with family in more than five years, says that falling back on social connections is a tried and tested way to keep loneliness at bay.

“It’s the nature of life in the UAE; friends become your family here,” says the mother of three. “It’s too costly to make the trip back to the UK for us all as a family over Christmas, armed with gifts for everyone, and the weather here is lovely during this time of year so we always choose to stay in the UAE and keep the UK for the summer break.

“Of course we miss family and I had my bad days of missing the days of baking and cooking with my mother during this time of year, but friends who are in the same boat help alleviate the loneliness.” Loneliness is one thing, but the fear is that it might cross over into depression, especially when factors like unrealistic expectations, financial pressures, excessive commitments and unfamiliar traditions tend to cause stress and anxiety, says Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, a psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.

“Loneliness at Christmas is often a trigger for depression and people feeling low,” he says.

“A number of expats are alone and not in touch with family because of the fact they are working abroad. It can generate feelings of sadness and distance for people without family here, but also for those expats who do go back home – often this does not always work out as planned as we tend to romanticise the return and arrive home with high expectations.”

Mindfulness and meditation, says Dr Abdul-Hamid, can be helpful tools to keep the anxiety at bay, and never underestimate the importance of regular exercise.

Beca Clarke from New Zealand will be spending her second Christmas in Abu Dhabi this year, and like others will rely on her “Abu Dhabi family” – the friends she has made here – to get through.

“New Zealand is too far away and expensive to travel for Christmas when you’ve already visited for the year,” explains Clarke.

“This year has been pretty hard as it’s only my third Christmas away from my family ever in 28 years, and we have two children under-two who haven’t shared Christmas with their extended family.

“Christmas for us is about friends, family, fun and food, so we’re very homesick. This year I’m making the food my mum would usually make for Christmas lunch and sharing with friends to feel a bit more at home.”

Clarke is hosting Christmas lunch and making a traditional pavlova, which she says is a must-have in Kiwi households for Christmas day. A trifle will also round out the desserts. “I’m definitely homesick during this time of year, so I try even more so to recreate favourite traditions,” she says.

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