Forcing a smile, Emily* tried to push down the fear rising within her. “I’ll go freshen up and then I’ll be ready,” she told her colleagues, walking slowly towards the ladies’ room, hoping her legs would stop shaking. PR executive Emily was due to give a presentation that could win her company a new profitable client. It was a chance to impress her boss and she’d been working on it solidly for a week, day and night. But now that the time had come to shine, Emily was clammy and dizzy. As she clung to a sink, pain shot through her chest and she struggled for breath.

“I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack, and I’ve never been so scared,” admits Emily, 33. “But when I went to my GP after doing the worst presentation of my life, he told me I’d had a panic attack, and I was signed 
off for stress.”

Emily’s not alone. Stress in the workplace is a very real problem in
the UAE. A recent study by YouGov revealed that 49 per cent of those surveyed in the country admitted to being stressed or severely stressed.

Carole Spiers, business columnist for Gulf News and author of Show Stress Who’s Boss! (www.carolespiersgroup.com), says that stress has always been an issue in Dubai, and grew worse
with the advent of technology and social media.

With the ability to be contacted even during out-of-work hours, we struggle to switch off and many of us have lost sight of our crucial work-life balance.

“The frenetic pace of life in Dubai means that because employers have high expectations, employees are often making themselves available 24/7,” explains Carole. “There is often insufficient time spent listening to employee concerns and recognising individual efforts, which leads to us feeling undervalued.”

The fact is, stress is bad for your health and makes you ill. It can pretty much make any existing health problem worse, and add a bunch more into the mix. Stress can lead to high blood pressure, which can trigger heart attacks. It can even make us pile on the pounds. Studies have shown that when we’re stressed, our bodies pump out a protein, called Ucn3, which makes us crave sweet and fatty foods.

Stress can give you migraines and contribute to depression and anxiety. Recent research in Finland has shown it can speed up the ageing process, as it prematurely shortens the length of DNA sections called telomeres, which protect our chromosomes. They naturally get shorter when we get older – speeding this up means we suffer age-related health problems, such as dementia or grey hair, a lot earlier.

The reality is most of us need to work. It’s often the reason we came to the UAE in the first place. So does stress simply come hand in hand with a high-paced working environment?

“Pressure can be good for us, whilst stress is not,” warns Carole. “Some pressure can be motivating, but prolonged excess pressure can eventually turn into damaging stress. Once stress gets out of control, it’s a slippery slope to what we know as burnout, which is a mental and physical breakdown that is often permanent. It is very hard to repair the damage to the system once it has occurred.”

Most people are reluctant to admit they can’t cope, and fear they might lose their jobs if they do, but even top executives can have a wobble in the washroom before a big meeting or presentation. “Most people suffer from some form of stress, at some time in their lives,” Carole says. “It is important to look out for warning signs and symptoms of stress – either in ourselves or others, and to take action quickly.

“We can’t always control the stressors in our lives but we can build our resilience in managing them.”

After she suffered from the panic attack at work, Emily took several weeks off to concentrate on her mental health. When she went back to her job in PR, she sat down with her bosses and they worked out ways to spread the workload more evenly and to communicate more effectively.

The simple changes she’s made to her work life have made a difference and she is now finding it easier to face meetings and difficult tasks.

“I wish I’d just admitted to my colleagues I was struggling earlier,” Emily says. “Once they knew how bad it had got, they all pulled together to take the strain. With my work going better, my home life is, too, and I’m so much happier. My friends and family have even commented that I look fresh-faced and younger!”

If Emily’s problem sounds familiar, don’t panic. We’ve spoken to the best
in the business to help you harness your stress and take back control.

Get a pen!

Benjamin Bonetti, hypnotherapist and author of How to Stress Less (benjaminbonetti.com) says we need to allocate time in our day to breathe, digest and respond to problems or stressful environments. Creating lists will make us much more likely to achieve our goals as it keeps us focused. “Take an objective approach and spend some time with a pen and paper,” he says. “Getting back to basics is a great way to remove the distractions and root out negative thoughts.”

Benjamin suggests you do this in a random place – so you’re not influenced by any previous memories. “Stress-free solutions will usually come to fruition as a result of this time away.”

Get the giggles!

“The most important time to stay connected to the outside world is when we’re at our busiest, or most stressed,” insists Angela Muir, an organisational psychologist and senior leadership faculty member at Ashridge Business School in the UK.

Angela believes it’s vital that we fiercely protect some of our time to interact with people, rather than just looking at a screen. “Whether it’s meeting up with a mentor to test out ideas or meeting up with colleagues on an informal basis, social support is essential to let off steam and regain perspective on issues.”

Laughter is a proven form of stress relief, so have a giggle with someone. “Laughter remains one of the quickest and most effective energy injections available. It not just improves mental health, it decreases the stress hormone Cortisol, lowers blood pressure, and triggers mood-boosting endorphins,” Angela says.


Get some eggs!

The hormone cortisol is released when we’re stressed. It not only interferes with learning and memory, but can cause all sorts of health problems and lower life expectancy. Jacqui Cleaver, is director of New You Boot Camp (newyoubootcamp.com) and knows that the right food and exercise in your day can help you manage stress. “Cortisol is highest in the morning when you first wake up, and people suffering with high levels of stress tend to find mornings the hardest.”

Jacqui recommends a good protein breakfast, such as eggs or smoked salmon, as it depletes cortisol and helps control blood sugars.

“Exercise is also essential as it releases endorphins – the natural happy vibes,” Jacqui says. Eat vegetables, meat and fish, but be careful with fruits as they contain a lot of sugar. “And stop drinking coffee!” Jacqui insists. “Caffeine will only increase your cortisol levels. Stressed people tend to depend on coffee for energy but it’s a trick. After the initial boost, it’ll only make you slump and add to your anxiety.”

Get tough!

“Tackle the tough stuff first,” advises Angela. “Whether at work or home, it’s all too easy to put off the tough tasks or difficult conversations until later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you at least make a start on these while you have most energy, you are more likely to complete them quickly and with a satisfactory outcome.

“If you leave difficult tasks to later in the day, you’re more likely to give up more quickly, say something you later regret or give in to another’s demands.” So start the day with a to-do list of things you’re dreading. By lunch they’ll be done and the stress will be over!

Get positive!

It’s easy to get bogged down with the negatives, but to keep our heads above water we have to cherry-pick the best bits. “A recent study found that ending the day with a brief positive reflection about even small successes resulted in individuals experiencing significantly less stress the same evening and subsequently feeling more refreshed and energised the following day,” says Angela. “Doing this in a team ensures that, however stressful it is, the working day ends on a positive note.” So reflect on your day and pick out a highlight. Remember why you do what you do. “Taking time out to remind ourselves of our sense of purpose can help to regain perspective and motivation in the face of short-term stresses.”

Get real!

“Manage your expectations and limit the time you spend on tasks,” says Benjamin. It can be hard when you’re working for a large organisation with strict routines, but take a step back and get real about what you can achieve. Renegotiate deadlines if you’re struggling to meet them, and be realistic. “If you’re anxious and stressing about completing all of your tasks, then it’s time to seriously start thinking about implementing a solid and realistic time-management action-plan,” Benjamin insists. “Get honest with yourself! Many of my clients come to me with stress-related issues that they already know the cause of and have simply failed to address.”


Get some allies!

Communication skills coach and world-renowned author Marc Lemezma (speechmarc.co.uk) believes that changing your relationship with the people that cause your stress is an effective way of coping at work. “Ask yourself, who is the person at work that causes you stress? It will be the one who always asks the awkward questions at presentations, or seems to have all the answers at meetings. They’ll be the person who makes your heart jump every time you see their name pop in to your Inbox.”

These people trigger a child-like reaction deep within us, so it’s helpful to find a way to see them in a more positive light. “Find something about them you can like and respect. Do they dress well? Do they support a charity? See them in a positive light and see how things change.” Marc suggests we take a look around our office and spot one or two colleagues who seem not to be affected by stress. “What is it they are doing (or not doing!) that seems to keep them calm and in control? Follow their example.”


Get your gorilla suit on!

Entering any workplace can be akin to entering a zoo, according to writer, presenter and blogger Rosie O’Carroll (misscluttermonkey.com) “When you walk through the office door, you’ll see all kinds of colourful types hollering and squawking and trying to be king of the jungle. Work can be stressful, especially if you see yourself as particularly low down in the food chain.“

Rosie says that visualisation is an ideal way to deal with intimidating or annoying colleagues at work. “If you have a lion-like boss imagine them as a smaller and weaker creature, for example a mouse. Imagine them shrinking down until they are a small speck on the floor. Now change the image you have of yourself, and 
picture yourself as a giant cat. Now who’s afraid?”

This technique also works for fear of speaking in meetings, or presentations. Try picturing your audience as a bunch of cheeky monkeys, jumping up and down and throwing bananas. “When it’s your turn to speak, imagine yourself as the biggest fattest gorilla in the jungle – think King Kong on a bad day. By seeing yourself as a large powerful presence, the fear of addressing an unruly audience should diminish.”