In a healthy state of mind: experts discuss the link between mental health and overall well-being
Mental wellness was once a taboo topic – something hidden from society. But as the need for services to treat it increases, it is becoming more acceptable to discuss. In a world that is more hectic, and where the pressures of life can be hard to manage, feeling good and functioning in a carefree manner can sometimes prove difficult.
In the UAE, where there are up to 200 nationalities coexisting, difficulties often arise. These include dealing with cultural and language differences at work and out in the community. There are inevitable financial issues and, for expatriates, living far from family and friends.
Research conducted by the World Health Organization shows that depression will be the leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020, which in turn will mean that the economic and societal burdens of mental illnesses will be significant.
According to Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist and clinical director of The Lighthouse Arabia community psychology clinic in Dubai, mental well-being is critical to our overall outlook on life. “Our well-being can be compared to a lens through which we see our life. It colours our world view, it changes our perspective, our perception in processing what goes on in our life.”
She says that our state of mind will often ebb and flow, but it requires attention, just as our physical health does. “We can only maintain well-being by providing the ingredients for a happy self, for example, nurturing, social support, physical fitness, challenge, accomplishment and meaning.”
While on the surface this sounds easy enough to manage, today’s world and the expectations of others and everyday societal pressures can make this a challenge.
“We live in a time where we are constantly ‘on’,” adds Saliha Afridi , also a clinical psychologist and Wyne’s colleague as the managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia. “Whether it is a woman who has to support her children in high-pressured environments while she juggles her job or a man who is travelling every week throughout the region for work.”
Afridi says these pressures can come about due to a lack of care for the mind and body, unrealistic expectations from work or self or financial pressures to provide the best for your family. “Everyone can suffer from not having a way to centre themselves in a fast-moving world.”
Managing stress, overcoming anxiety and identifying depressive tendencies are all skills we need to learn as our lives develop. Natasha Enriquez, who owns and runs SoulFit UAE – an Abu Dhabi-based company focused on educating people about their health and empowering change – says that for the most part “most stressors in the modern world are self-made”.
“Your mindset plays a big role in your overall well-being. Learning how to deal with stressful situations and how to de-stress are more important today than ever before,” she says. “The more stressful and demanding our lifestyle becomes, the more important it is to look for balance.”
There are various ways to reduce stress – yoga and meditation are a few that Enriquez endorses. “Yoga and meditation are great tools to relieve physical, mental and emotional stress. Even just taking a moment to consciously breathe deeply and evenly is scientifically proven to have fantastic calming effects on the nervous system.”
Dubai-based yogi Laura Farrier agrees: “From a yogic standpoint the purpose of the physical practice – asana – is to get deeper into the body, and develop more strength and flexibility. Once we have more control over our body and our breath we are able to control the fluctuations of the mind.
“The beauty of yoga is that it can be added to your life at any age. The intensity to which it is practised can be adapted to suit the person, but the benefits will be felt if done correctly with guidance from a teacher.”
The sympathetic nervous system, which controls our “fight and flight” responses, becomes overactive when we are stressed, which triggers negative side effects like high blood pressure, anxiety and a lack of concentration. For those who are unable to reduce pressure on their own, it is important to find someone to talk to – a friend is a good place to start. But if you feel that you don’t have a personal source to confide in, the UAE has a growing number of professional outlets.
“Ten years ago you really didn’t see a lot of mental-health services here, whereas now, services are available in virtually every medical centre and hospital,” says Melanie Schlatter, a psychologist in Dubai. “We are seeing more specialists available and more community support groups covering areas from grief to postnatal depression, to cancer and alcoholism.”
Aside from psychologists, who can provide support services with a more clinical focus, there are a variety of life-coaching services throughout the UAE that can help, too. “Coaching is great for keeping people on track, accountable and always moving forward by setting goals and challenges,” says Adam Zargar, executive director of coaching and training with UAE Coaching.
Zargar says his Dubai practice receives a lot of calls from residents who are struggling. “It is not only adults - children as young as 7 and teenagers are referred to us for child coaching because they are being bullied, hating their home or school life and are looking for someone to listen, understand their feelings and give them tools to make changes,” he says.
Indeed, the mental well-being of youth has become a focus globally and across the UAE.
“We work closely with schools and serve countless teenagers and are seeing that there is a higher degree of emotional and behavioural dysregulation, higher incidence of mood disorders and self-harming teenagers as well as a rise in the numbers of teenagers maintained on psychotropic medication [drugs that affect their mental state] to manage their disorders,” says Wyne. “Typically teenagers don’t have a well-formed set of coping mechanisms for the issues they face and they can resort to destructive coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, self-harm, or disordered eating to regulate themselves.”
This issue is of such concern in the UAE that consultancy firm Ebdaah has organised a seminar – “Ensuring our teenagers live life to the full” – aimed at improving the mental health and emotional well-being of the country’s teenagers.
The seminar, which will be led by two British child and adolescent psychology experts, Madeleine Portwood and Jim Boylan, will be held on November 28 at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Tecom. It is designed as a learning resource for high school principals, senior staff, school counsellors, health professionals, parents, therapists and doctors.
No matter your age, if you feel like things are out of kilter, for example, you’re not enjoying the things you used to; feeling sad or anxious most of the day, every day; experiencing changes in your appetite and sleeping patterns; withdrawing from family and friends; or having difficulty finding activities that offer comfort and escape, it may be time to seek help.
“We must be conscious of and attuned to what is going on inside and outside of us,” says Wyne. “Too many of us lead extremely busy and challenging lives with competing demands, and we just keep going irrespective of the toll it is taking and actually ignoring how we feel.”
Tips for maintaining a positive outlook
• Keep a journal. Before bed each night write down three things you were grateful for in the past 24 hours and three things you are looking forward to.
• Every time a negative thought enters your mind or comes out of your mouth, change the negative into a positive.
• Take time to see situations logically rather than emotionally.
• Plan ahead. Before going to bed each night plan five small measurable 1 per cent actions you can do to move forward in your life.
• Find an anchor to symbolise the important things in your life.
• Don’t sweat the small things, keep perspective.
• If you have moved away from home, keep an open mind and enjoy the experience.
• Share your worries and concerns with a friend.
Updated: November 11, 2015 04:00 AM