Stress hormones are part of the "fight or flight" response that primes your body for battling a saber-toothed predator or avoiding a car crash Image Credit: Agency

In the UAE, nearly 22 per cent of residents feel that they are facing unmanageable levels of stress, according to the 2019 Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey. One of the biggest concerns highlighted by the global insurance company is that 32 per cent of residents believe that high blood pressure (HBP), which is closely linked to heart problems, is not curable through lifestyle changes. “In the UAE, 30 per cent of respondents are battling HBP, a possible precursor to heart disease, yet close to half of them do not perceive this as fatal,” explained Dr Mohamed Farghaly, Consultant at Dubai Health Insurance Corporation and Head of Insurance Policies and Health Economics at Dubai Health Authority, in a media release accompanying the survey.

Jerome Droesch, CEO of Cigna Middle East and North Africa, said, “Companies in the UAE must study key gaps in employer support and concentrate on these in order to lower stress levels. An important part of making this happen is to shape an environment where employees feel free to talk about anxiety in the workplace, rather than see it as taboo.”

Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director at Lighthouse Arabia, believes that mental health and well-being are widely misunderstood in this region. “We live in a region where mental health is still a mystery and has a lot of stigma associated with it. The factors make open discussions about mental health a lot more difficult. Also, in the region due to a lack of understanding about the topic, there is still a lot of fear from employees that if they don’t step up to the plate or survive the stress then they will be deemed unfit for the work at hand and lose their job.”

We live in a region where mental health is still a mystery and has a lot of stigma associated with it. The factors make open discussions about mental health a lot more difficult.

- Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director, Lighthouse Arabia

Ten stress signals

  • Irritability
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Bowel issues
  • Back pain
  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Poor sleep
  • Forgetfulness
  • Frequent colds and infections

Why do we experience these symptoms?

Dr Afridi says that while there are many reasons UAE residents feel anxious and depressed, they can be classified into five overarching categories:


“The workload seems unmanageable for people. Working in the Middle East, the culture of work-home boundaries is even more blurred, and people are expected to respond to their local, regional and overseas clients promptly. Many people also have a lot of travel as part of their work and this can further tax the mind and body. The UAE is a growing country and there are many opportunities for people, but with opportunity comes a pace of life that can be hectic for people who are not conscious of how they work and live.”


“Most people are away from their extended family and their larger support network. The hours they work do not allow them to socialize or connect with the family in a meaningful way. They are distracted or zoned out in front of a device and these devices have played a big part in people feeling lonely and disconnected to their loved ones. Also, marriages and relationships are under a lot of pressure due to the partners being the only source of support, and frequent travel by the working partner.”

Unhealthy lifestyles

“The norms of staying out late on weeknights, not getting enough sleep, eating rich and salty foods, smoking sheesha and/or cigarettes are just some of the reasons why the mind and body are over-stressed in the UAE.”

Lack of downtime

“This is not just in the UAE, but everywhere around the world people are feeling stressed due to not getting enough shut-down time. People are constantly on their phones and do not switch off. Information overload and constant distractions are depleting the mind and stressing the body.”

Not taking care of physical and mental health

“People are not aware of how they can maintain mental hygiene. They are going about their life unconsciously and engaging in activities, and lifestyles that are really putting a lot of pressure and stress on the mind and body. The mind and body are not separate — if you stress one, the other gets affected. If you are emotionally not well, your body and mind will be impacted. Having a routine to care for your mental health will be critical for well-being.”

Stress, visualized

Cigna’s Stress Care initiative was launched to help raise awareness about the long-term impact of stress, and help reduce its prevalence in the UAE. Visitors to the Mall of the Emirates were able to see their live stress readings visualized in stunning colours through a Stress Portrait, thanks to Cigna’s collaboration with digital artist Sean Sullivan. Passersby had their brain waves, heart rate and skin response measured to produce the portraits. After that, they were invited to develop their own Stress PLAN – identifying a Period of time to unwind, a Location that is stress-reducing, an Activity to enjoy and the Name of a person they can talk to.

To develop your own Stress Portrait and PLAN, please visit https://www.cigna-me.com/mystressplan