We can all help control society’s stress epidemic
On the evening of Dec. 5, 2017, I went to sleep with a mild fever after having sent a text message to my boss telling him I may not be in the next day (and another dramatic one to my sister asking her to take care of my children should something happen to me — I can be quite dramatic). There was nothing out of the ordinary, just a fever and a possible infection, for which I was prescribed antibiotics. The next day, I woke up in a hospital bed, confused, not knowing how I ended up there. I tried to gather my thoughts and remember how I had got to the hospital, but to no avail. I was groggy, exhausted and my lips were swollen and bruised.
I struggled to sit up as the doctor came in with my husband to explain what had happened. Tears ran down my face as he calmly told me that I had a tumor roughly the size of a tennis ball pressing against my brain, which brought on a couple of episodes of grand mal seizures (full-on seizures that made me lose consciousness and violently bite through my lips, causing them to swell and bleed) shortly after I went to bed the night before. The tumor had apparently been growing over many years without me knowing, and I needed to have it surgically removed as soon as possible.
I spent the next month preparing for my surgery and making sure my children were taken care of during my absence. During that period, every person I came across asked how I could have missed the symptoms of a tumor so sizeable for so long (it was initially estimated that the tumor had been pressing against my brain for at least 10 years). My only answer was that I had two children and one demanding job after another.
That year in particular, I was working hard to prove myself at a new job, whilst also being seven months pregnant. My son was starting kindergarten, and my husband was away getting his master’s degree in another country. I was exhausted and overworked. Every symptom of the tumor — including migraines, fatigue, blurry vision, emotional outbursts, and numbness in some parts of my body — was no different to any of the symptoms of the chronic stress and anxiety that most of us have all come to accept as the silent epidemic of our time, especially if you are a working mother. Though my condition cannot be attributed to stress alone, it did play a major role, both in aggravating it and preventing me from taking my symptoms seriously.
Chronic stress, as a result of modern lifestyles with their high-pressure jobs, traffic jams, busy schedules and unrealistic expectations, can have serious negative effects on our health. Chronic stress results from a state of ongoing physiological arousal. When the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity, it results in the autonomic nervous system not having an adequate chance to regularly activate the relaxation response we need to stay healthy. This kind of stress ultimately affects virtually every system in the body.
What many of us do not know is that our bodies were built to handle acute, short-lived stress, but not chronic, steady stress over long periods of time. Chronic stress puts us in a heightened state of alertness, and our bodies in a constant state of perceived looming threat. Over time, this can wear our bodies down and cause us to be ill.
Chronic stress, as a result of modern lifestyles with their high-pressure jobs, traffic jams, busy schedules and unrealistic expectations, can have serious negative effects on our health.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Earlier this year, Dr. Mehmet Cengiz Oz, popularly known as Dr. Oz, revealed that a recent study he conducted found that as many as 80 percent of people in the UAE suffer from stress. On average, the amount of sleep they get is 5 hours and 38 minutes, roughly 20 minutes less than people in the West. This came as no surprise to many of us living here. The stressful lives we lead cause many of us to get far less sleep than our bodies need. We wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night quite regularly, and experience anxiety and panic attacks every night as we run through our “to-do” lists for the next day. Tension headaches and fatigue never seem to go away.
Sadly, stress and anxiety are also no longer experienced only by people of a certain age group, but affect people of all ages. Children and young adults are reportedly more stressed than ever before. In fact, recent studies show that adolescents and young adults are five to eight times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who lived at the height of the Great Depression in the US. Another recent study has found there is a 33 percent spike in stress caused by perfectionism among college students in Canada, the US and the UK. In its most acute forms, the stress of perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, high blood pressure, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
Stress and anxiety have become so prevalent that I would argue it is time for nationwide interventions to address their causes. Knowing what we do about the negative short and long-term impacts on our physical and mental health, the health of our children and, indeed, societies, we must all act to control this epidemic. The first step we must take, as individuals, parents and employers, is to adjust our expectations and be mindful of our own physical, mental and emotional capabilities, as well as those of the people around us.
As individuals leading stressful lives and trying with immense difficulty to achieve work-life balance, we must learn to pace ourselves, listen to our bodies and find ways to manage our stress levels (be it through physical exercise, meditation or other means). Finally, stress and anxiety have proven to be contagious; we must remember that, in taking care of ourselves, we are, in a sense, doing those around us a service and releasing less stress into a world seemingly overwhelmed with it.
- Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif