Struggling to switch off is affecting the health of more and more women – is it time to slow down?
“I feel like women are often carrying an invisible label that reads, ‘You aren’t allowed to be sick,’” begins Dr Lanalle Dunn, founder of the Chiron Clinic in Dubai. The working mother adds, “Women are multitasking machines. We can’t get sick. Who will take care of everything and everyone?” Cue stories from family, friends, and acquaintances lamenting the same. My 27-year-old sister, Morgan Venison, still answered work emails for her boutique PR firm even though her vision was impaired due to encephalitis. My friend Rohma Nomani, 31, also a luxury PR executive, recently suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage. She started listing her incomplete tasks from her hospital bed upon seeing her manager.
Speaking to women who have suffered from illness, disease, or disorders, there is a resounding fear of admitting to health issues, regardless of age. It’s especially prevalent in those in the public eye. In 2016, images of 68-year-old Hilary Clinton leaving an event supported by her aides caused an uproar. Initially reported to be dehydration, it was later confirmed that the US presidential candidate was suffering from pneumonia. “We all live in a culture where it’s frowned upon to take sick days at the office. We are almost made to feel like failures if we should fall sick,” says Dr Dunn.
A recent report from the European Health Interview Survey revealed that more women on the continent had taken sick leave than men. However, the women were calling in sick to take care of their children, not themselves. The report also concluded that women take less time off than their male counterparts. “Compared to men, most women address their physical or mental health difficulties faster, because they are also contending with societal pressures to appear ‘strong’ and not show any weakness,” explains Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of the Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing in Dubai.
Following a routine checkup that led to an MRI, 40-year-old Dubai-based entrepreneur Natalia Shustova discovered she had kidney cancer. She received the news while hosting a fashion event. “I collapsed in the bathroom. I cried,” she recalls. “Then, I wiped my tears and went back outside to host the rest of the event.” Although behaving like normal initially helped her, it only delayed the inevitable. “I had never been so scared in my life. I was thinking about it constantly,” she says.
While there is no causal link between stress and cancer, by burdening your nervous system, stress can be an instrumental factor in many other illnesses. Venison, Nomani, and Shustova all lead full and stressful lives, with Shustova commenting, “I had not been sleeping properly for years. At night, I would think about what I needed to do the next day. I lost check of reality.” Sleep deprivation is inevitable when you’re stressed, often leading to a vicious cycle: you can’t sleep because you’re stressed, yet you stress about not sleeping. “One sleep researcher has stated that we are in a ‘catastrophic sleep loss epidemic’ and that if we want to get control of our physical and mental health, ‘sleep is the single most effective thing a person can do for their brain and body,’” says Dr Afridi. Her research indicates that even a single night of reduced sleep – four to five hours – can limit the body’s fighter cells by 70%.
Ensuring minimal stress and maximum sleep, especially when ill, is often easier said than done. “People can feel overwhelmed when diagnosed with an illness,” says Dr Afridi. In many cases, the people around you can either have a positive or negative impact on your health. After going public with her story, Shustova says she had women writing to her, wishing they could be as brave as she was in disclosing illness – “but they were scared they would lose their jobs, friends, or even their partner.”
Everybody employs different coping mechanisms. By opening a dialogue about her illness, Shustova says she wanted to show women that it’s OK to admit to being unwell. “Getting sick can happen, but it’s something you can overcome.” Sharing your story can also help in the promotion of early diagnosis. “Prevention is key in sustainable health and wellness,” says Dr Dunn. “I think women should start having a health checkup as early as age 13.” Dr Afridi agrees, “You should go for routine, six-month checkups for physical and emotional health. It is important to do it twice a year so you can avoid problems before they start, or identify issues early on so that they can be tackled right away.”
Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia