Abu Dhabi: Despite stress being closely linked to the incidence of some of the most common illnesses in the UAE, many patients still fail to seek treatment for chronic stress, leading mental health experts have said.

The problem is exacerbated because doctors and physicians usually fail to refer patients who show early warning signs of chronic stress to psychological care professionals, said Dr Yousuf Abouallaban, consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

“In my experience, nearly 60 to 70 per cent of residents suffer from some form of stress.

“While stress is not an illness in itself, it does become a concern when it begins to affect an individual’s ability to function normally. Yet, most of our patients come to us with other complaints, not realising that the real issue is that they are unable to handle the levels of stress in their lives,” Dr Abouallaban told Gulf News.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress (ADMC), which concluded in the capital on Tuesday. The three-day congress in the capital saw more than 4,000 health-care professionals in attendance.

According to Dr Abouallaban, chronically high levels of stress are a risk factor for developing diseases like hypertension and diabetes — a disease with high levels in the UAE.

“Stress releases adrenaline, a hormone which affects many different organs in the body. One of the effects of adrenaline is to increase the level of blood sugar, and when this continues to happen over a long period, the human body loses its ability to reduce the level of sugar, leading to diabetes,” he explained.

Among Dr Abouallaban’s Emirati patients, stress is a common reason for overeating and marital discord.

On the other hand, expatriate patients who are unable to handle negative stress in their lives usually end up consuming too much alcohol, using excessive tobacco products, or performing poorly at their jobs.

Because stress manifests itself in many different ways, the real responsibility for detecting symptoms lies with doctors and physicians, the doctor said.

“In addition to expected symptoms like headaches, persistent gastrointestinal problems and backaches could come about due to stress. We do not expect a lay person to understand this, or know that high levels of unhealthy stress are the reason why they take more than two hours to sleep every night,” he added.

“When patients approach physicians with such concerns, the physicians may find no apparent reason for their occurrence. This is when they must refer patients to a mental health expert, especially as so many of these concerns can be resolved by helping patients manage their stress,” Dr Abouallaban said.

Stress is also the most common reason for tension-type headaches, added Dr Khaldoun Mozahem, a consultant neurologist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

“Patients need to understand that they can manage these stress levels. Not doing so could worsen many other illnesses, and also lead to severe depression in the long term,” Dr Mozahem said.

A combination of medication, breathing and muscle relaxation techniques, exercises, and even meditation can help in reducing stress levels, the doctors added.