I’d rather have a Xanax than a heart attack: Dubai CEOs on anxiety and antidepressants

Business in the city is booming, but some of its top executives are seeking different ways in dealing with the price of success

Lubna Hamdan 6 Min Read

We’ve heard it one too many times: the tale of the desperate housewife’s love affair with benzodiazepines – or as they’re more commonly known today: Valium and Xanax.

The calming pills of the 50s, 60s and 70s were once the Western world’s most widely prescribed medications, with Americans consuming a staggering 2 billion of them at the peak of their popularity in 1978, according to Proto medical magazine.

But it’s no longer just the suburban housewives of the US that need an escape from the drudgery of their lives who have taken a liking to the anti-anxiety medication; it’s the stressed CEOs and high-level business executives in Dubai.

“I can tell you that nine out of 10 of my friends are taking calming pills. It’s become a lifestyle for so many people. It’s like a Panadol. It’s in their pockets, in their bags, in their cars. You can count on a pill in your pocket. But you can’t count on someone else to calm you down,” an investment banker and entrepreneur tells me on condition of anonymity.

“In our line of work, we see people who make hundreds of millions in the stock market, then we see who people lose hundreds of millions. At the end of the day, people don’t care what you’re going through. They don’t care if you’re crying on the inside. You just have to deliver. Nowadays, the more ambitious you are, the more assistance you need to get you through the day,” he says.

That’s exactly what Xanax and antidepressant Zoloft do for him, he claims. The meds are only available with a doctor’s prescription in the UAE, and businesspeople are opting for them instead of long-term solutions like holistic treatments.

“The ready availability and exclusive choice of medication might dissuade patients from pursuing a more holistic treatment approach and create more problems in the future,” says Dr. Stephan Dax at the German Neuroscience Center in Jumeirah Lake Towers.

“In Dubai, CEOs, business executives and other busy professionals of both genders consequently frequently favor pharmacotherapy over other treatment modalities as [they’re] less time consuming and more congruent with occupational demands, in order to deal with depression, anxiety, and stress-related problems, including physical sequelae and ill health,” he adds.

Last year, a survey claimed UAE employees are among the most stressed in the world, with 50% of workers expressing interest in changing their jobs, according to the Cigna 360 Wellbeing Survey, compared to the global average of 31%.

The price of success

Indeed, success comes at a price, with the UAE economy set to expand by 5.4% this year, according to the UAE Central Bank, while Emirates NBD predicted the economy – the Arab world’s second-largest – will expand by 7%. First Abu Dhabi Bank also predicted the UAE’s economy to grow by 6.7%, and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank by 6.2%.

For one banker-turned entrepreneur, the price was anti-anxiety medication.

“I started taking Xanax when I left my job at a bank and started my own business,” he said on the condition he remains anonymous.

“I was so stressed that I started having stomach acidity issues and chest pains. Then one day, I was out with some friends, and I noticed that one of them was always taking medication. I asked him what it was, and he said it was a calming pill. I said, aren’t you afraid you’re going to get addicted to them? And I remember his line very clearly. He said to me, I’d rather have a Xanax than have a heart attack.’

“So, I thought, the stress is already damaging my body, at least the medication will help me get through life,” he says.

Dr. Dax at the German Neuroscience Center says it will only help in the short-term.

“Medications have a limited remit for treating stress-related disorders, and might indeed cause adverse reactions and long term side effects, such as psychological and physical dependence; rather than solving one problem,” he says.

Instead, he recommends a healthier work-life balance, regular rest and relaxation, stress reduction techniques, regular exercise, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and limited use of recreational substances, such as alcohol.

Yet a competitive business environment in one of the world’s most booming economies means balancing work and life is challenging. In 2018, a report found residents of Dubai work among the longest hours in the world.

According to Swiss bank UBS’ Prices and Earnings report, which ranked 77 cities, Dubai placed sixth globally.

“If you go to a small town by the beach, people working there won’t need to take calming medication,” the investment banker and entrepreneur tells me.

“But the speed of life here [in Dubai], the kind of business, the expectations from others… If I’m happy about my achievements one day, then I sit with friends and hear that they have achieved more than me, I feel anxiety and feel that I accomplished nothing,” he adds.

“There’s so much information to take in and take a decision based on. Your mood needs to be calm for you not to take an irrational or emotional decision. I used to think that drinking alcohol calms me down. But calming medication help me think better. You’re basically the same person, but without showing your real emotions, whether you’re happy, sad, or stressed,” he explains.

It is that same competitive working environment in the booming business hub that makes anti-anxiety medication less taboo in one of the world’s most successful cities, according to Dr. Dax.

“Societal attitudes and an emphasis on productivity and competitive performance… render psychiatric medication less taboo in Dubai, increase demand and diminish the propensity and preparedness for a healthy reflection about personal priorities and values,” he says.

Lonely in the city

A high-level executive at a media company, who asked to remain anonymous, argues, however, that work may not be the primary reasons businesspeople are turning to anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants.

“A lot of people blame work, when the real problems are somewhere else, because it’s more socially acceptable to talk about problems at work.

“A lot of people in [big cities] take them out of loneliness, and they don’t want to say it’s because of loneliness. I know, because I had that issue too. You don’t want to admit it to others, but you also don’t want to admit it to yourself,” she says.

She had started taking antidepressant Cipralex to help deal with the potential loss of an ill parent.

“I was starting to think about what losing a parent would look like, and that really hurt me a lot. Somehow, I felt as if the ground below my feet was broken.

“I always had prejudice towards [antidepressants]. I always thought they were for whiny, privileged people who don’t have real problems, because I have quite a stoic personality and come from a culture where it’s considered normal to cope with life without antidepressents.

“But after a year of was trying to get my parent the treatment and care she needs… I felt like every single drop of life was going out of my body and my mind. I felt like I’m switching off all the lights inside me without even noticing,” she says.

Yet despite being on Cipralex for a year and a half, she says she’s against prescribing antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication to younger people.

“They diminish their capabilities to cope with life if they take them too early on… Families need to teach their children how to cope with stresses of life. In my opinion, the later you take them, the better.

“Focus on getting clarity on what your problem is, then focus on fixing your problem, not just relying on the medication, because that’s weak and lazy.

“The problem is that people expect medication to solve everything,” she says.

Dr. Dax explains personal circumstances and adverse childhood events make patients less resilient to the effects of stress, and as a result, increase their desire for medication. And while there’s no such thing as a magic pill, Dubai has proven there is, indeed, a formula for success: hard work – whether it includes benzodiazepines is entirely up to you (and your doctor, of course).