DUBAI EXPAT STORIES. Dr. Saliha Afridi tells how to cope with depression

“These pains (bouts of depression) are messengers, Listen to them.” – Rumi

And so, says clinical psychologist, Dr. Saliha Afridi, listen to what the depression is asking of you.

“While many people are focused solely on getting through it or treating it, they might miss what is being asked of them by the depression. Oftentimes, depression can communicate a disconnect from ourselves or what is most important to us, or it can be a way that our psyche pulls us away from the noise of the world (withdrawal) and makes us consider what is important to us and how we want to be spending our time,” says Dr. Saliha.

Dr. Saliha says that in this age of knowledge and Dr. Google, there is a lot of misinformation about clinical disorders resulting in people either catastrophizing a few bad days or minimizing a depressive episode. 

The signs and symptoms of depression, she said, include low or tearful mood, an inability to enjoy the things you are used to enjoying, feeling withdrawn from friends and family, low energy, low concentration, low motivation, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, as well as a disruption in your sleep or appetite (too much or too little). 

Five or more of these symptoms must be present every day, more often than not, over a course of the last two weeks, and they must cause significant impairment in a person’s personal and professional life. 

Dr. Saliha said being depressed doesn’t necessarily mean sulking in one dark corner. 

“The reality is that many people who are depressed look like they are ‘just fine,’” she says. “And while they dig deep to show up for meetings, or family dinners, inside of themselves, they feel disengaged, disconnected and discontent. 

“Celebrities such as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga have all come out and talked about dark periods in their lives, where they made their appearances on sets or shows, looking fine, but inside felt the darkness of depression. So yes, you can be depressed and show up for your work, your children, your partner, and your life, but the ‘impairment’ is in the way you show up being less engaged, and less rewarding,” she added.

Dr. Saliha says  some people might start to self-medicate during their depression, to lift themselves out of a low mood. “They might start shopping unreasonably, going out and socializing excessively, over committing to work to keep their mind busy, or using substances to numb themselves of their dark thoughts and feelings.”

Her pieces of advice:

  • Talk to a professional. This is the most important and critical step that most people do not take. They will usually say, “I am not that bad” or “my situation does not warrant a psychologist” when the truth is that they have been struggling with their depression for months on end. In fact, the majority of the people who are struggling with depression, never actually get the help they need and accept that life is an unhappy struggle.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough exercise. This is not easy to do when every move you make requires you to summon every ounce of energy inside of you. “However, I encourage you to move even if you do not feel like it. Research shows that light exercise can be equally effective as antidepressants, without the side effects! So write a prescription to yourself to move 20 minutes in the morning sun every day as part of your treatment of depression. 
  • You are what you eat. Up to 90% of our serotonin (the neurochemical involved in anxiety and depression) is produced in the gut. If your gut is not happy, you can assume that you won’t be happy. Eat foods that are of the earth and give life, instead of those that are processed or unhealthy. 
  • Guard your sleep. Depression can cause havoc on your sleep cycles so it is important to make an effort in this regard.  Remember, sleep is done in the night but made in the day, so make sure you spend the day consciously tending to your circadian rhythms.
  • Take time off technology. While you may be tempted to scroll your days away in entertainment technology, the constant stream of news, content, and social media can further burden and overwhelm your mind.  Take a breather, step out to unwind or catch up on some easy reading to help your brain relax and recuperate. 
  • Spend time with your tribe. According to one of the longest studies done to date by Harvard University, the most significant predictor of happiness is whether you have close, intimate relationships in your life. Social connections mitigate the effects and the strain of depression on your life. No, social media friends do not count; instead these are the people you call when you need money, or those who share in your joys and sorrows.
  • And lastly as mentioned earlier, Listen to the depression.  

As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families. Dr Afridi has worked with prominent companies and ministries such as The Executive Council, The National Program for Happiness and Well-being from the Happiness Ministry, many professional service firms and fortune 100 companies in her bid to dissolve mental health stigma and be at the forefront of the mental health movement within the UAE and the region.

She has a  BA in Anthropology, University of Michigan, US; MA in Clinical Psychology, Arizona School of Professional Psychology, US; and a PhD in Clinical Psychology, Arizona School of Professional Psychology. She is also member of  American Psychological Association and is US-licensed by the Arizona Board of Licensed Psychologists.

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