Mental health advice for those living abroad – four things I learned
Orla Carlin lives in Dubai where she works in education and is a freelance writer. She is studying for a master’s degree in mental health and well-being
I am from Belfast and moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2014 to work as a teacher. Now I write for different international magazines and spend my time working on my distance learning Masters in Wellness.
Earlier this year it was suggested that the south of Ireland would experience a tsunami of mental health needs coming some time after the initial pandemic peak and that this situation would persist for months or even years. In 2018, Northern Ireland was found to have the highest prevalence of mental illness in Britain. With that in mind and the continuation of the pandemic, I decided to grab a rain check and go.
Since moving to the Middle East in 2014, I have been grateful to explore other countries and their cultures. Dubai is an international hub and because of that, I have visited countries that, to be honest, I had never wanted to see.
Living in the UAE has allowed me to see the other Gulf countries, the greater Middle East region, the Balkans and even Uzbekistan. Admittedly, no place is perfect and everywhere one ventures to come with its pros and cons. The pursuit of happiness can be tiring no matter where you live or work, and this is evident in depression rates around the world, which increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015.
I decided to stay in Dubai, but even though I love the sun and the exciting lifestyle, I can still find myself wanting what I don’t have.
I decided to stay in Dubai, but even though I love the sun and the exciting lifestyle, I can still find myself wanting what I don’t have. I know it’s human nature because whenever it rains here it’s a treat to see the students running around screaming on a rainy day, much like a snowy day in Ireland. We adapt so much to new environments that after a while we can forget to see their beauty.
After going through lockdown I was motivated to study wellness science and it helped me to just look around. I started noticing the little things other people do here in the desert to make themselves happy. I decided to be a bit more experimental.
Here are four things I learned about wellness in the melting pot that is Dubai:
Befriend other people who don’t drink alcohol
I know that all over the world there are people who drink and others who prefer not to drink. I found it easier to meet people who abstain from alcohol here, maybe because of their culture or religious values. Anyway, I learned a lot. In Holly Whitetaker’s book Quit like a Woman, she draws attention to the fact that between 2002 and 2012, rates of alcohol dependence among women increased by 84%. Maybe the shocking stats catapulted me to do something else on the weekends.
I think in many parts of the world it’s culturally acceptable to get drunk and wake up with a damaging hangover. Yet we know that even the smallest amount of alcohol disrupts our sleep, fuels anxiety, and causes us to age faster. I started spending my Friday nights eating Arabic food and going to restaurants instead of clubs. Enjoying hummus, falafel, tabbouleh and kibbeh with water instead of wine made it even more splendid.
When I watched my friends dance soberly when their favorite songs played in restaurants, I realized it was actually more fun. The next day when I woke up, I had no anxiety, lots of energy and no more money; Also, my confidence in dancing grew.
Replace your snacks with sunflower seeds
I have taught high school students at local schools here. Sometimes, as a teacher, I walked into the room to see tables full of sunflower seeds and seashells. It was quite refreshing to see young people so enthusiastic about snacks that didn’t involve chips and candy bars or typical junk food. I remember a friend once told me that she was helping her son with his homework, she ate the seeds because cracking the shells is satisfying and helps him stay calm when the homework session isn’t not planned.
There seems to be a love for these seeds in the Middle East. Some say they boost immunity and have anti-inflammatory properties and lots of vitamin E. Whenever I am tasked with doing a tedious task I snack on these delicious treats and when people are around me they also join.
Take daily breaks
The call to prayer can be heard five times a day in Dubai, it catches my attention during morning classes, noon and evening meals. Sometimes when I have to take a taxi, the driver politely asks me if he can take a break and pray. I sit in the back and watch him happily pull his mat out of the trunk and walk away. I take my yoga mat with me everywhere I go now. Maybe he inspired me in a roundabout way.
I can hear the melody coming from the local mosques. I think the call is relaxing and quite powerful as it captivates the ears of many. In Ireland, the one-minute Catholic reflection on RTÉ known as Angelus is a daily reminder for people to stop and reflect too. I think there are similarities that can be drawn between the two in that we should take some time each day to pause and pray.
I don’t think we have to be very religious to do this, but when I hear the sound, it helps me pause and gain clarity. I might take time to write statements of gratitude, meditate, or practice breathing exercises. The key to better well-being is finding a balance between activity and inactivity. Here, new ideas can appear, as well as opportunities to meet daily challenges.
Learn a language
Studying a new language can deepen bonds and help create new relationships without stepping foot outside. Ultimately, learning a language can improve well-being while alleviating negative thoughts. I spent the first two years here teaching a monolingual class. I heard the same sayings over and over in Arabic but they never bored me. On the contrary, they piqued my interest.
The word love in Arabic can be said in different ways and some of them are quite poetic and seductive. Arabs use love in their vocabulary on a daily basis and it is not just reserved for romantic relationships. I think it’s just a constant reminder to tell people how much you love them. The lesson here is that even though I can’t have a conversation, hearing the phrases motivates me to play songs on You Tube daily, helping me explore the Arabic language in an easy and fun way. I think languages can tell us stories about other people, which helps us feel more connected to them.
When I finally get home I’ll take the lessons with me but for now it’s Ma’a salama from Dubai.
If you live abroad and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email [email protected] with some information about you and what you do