Tips to Tackle Exhaustion

PHOTO: Insufficient sleep is linked to obesity and a host of other maladies.
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It's 6 a.m., and Alena Burley's alarm clock is screaming.

By 7:30, the 23-year-old from Tallahassee, Florida, has walked her dog, eaten an egg-white omelet, showered, dressed, and driven 30 minutes to her third-grade teaching job. By 4:30, her dog is back on its leash, then Alena sprints to the gym before her grad-school class, after which she rushes to her evening babysitting gig. Back home well past 10 p.m., totally beat, she grades papers and falls into bed--after setting her alarm...for 6 a.m.

"Sometimes I go so nonstop that I suddenly realize I've had to go to the bathroom for hours," says Alena. "I feel burned-out all the time, but when I look around, everyone I know is just as busy."

Of course, such a frenzied day-to-day is nothing new. Women have been run ragged for decades, especially after they entered the work force en masse, juggling career and family responsibilities. But Alena's attitude exemplifies a novel and more worrisome psychological shift: Young women have accepted exhaustion as a normal state of being. But even youth is no defense against the health hazards that come with such grueling schedules.

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Resisting a Rest

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. And an American Psychological Association survey showed a large gap between the level of stress people say they experience and what they think is healthy. But another survey found that when women are tired, 80 percent are at least somewhat likely to push right on through. "We live in a culture in which people accept lagging energy as a fact of life," confirms integrative medicine specialist Frank Lipman, M.D., author of Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again.

It's a mindset that starts early. "We're now primed to be fatigued from the get-go," says anesthesiologist Dr. Bradley Carpentier, who has studied causes of exhaustion. "Kids are loaded with after-school activities; high schoolers are busy getting into college, where they'll only get up earlier and stay up later. Then come careers, the iPhones and BlackBerrys, the 24-7 multitasking."

Yet many experts believe more is going on than just crammed calendars. They point to a need for validation that often drives women to never say no. "Women are caught up in the societal expectation that, in order to get ahead, a price must be paid--and that price is exhaustion," says sleep researcher Karin Olson, Ph.D., R.N., of the University of Alberta. Even those who step off the career track to start families don't necessarily slow down. They just switch lanes, trading insane office hours for marathon mommying.

Women are also more prone than men to feel guilty if they can't fit it all in and are therefore less likely to challenge exhaustion acceptance, says Carol Landau, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry and medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. "We tell ourselves, I can't go to bed now, because X, Y, and Z aren't done perfectly" she says. Plus, social cues prime women to internalize the idea that family--and possibly friendships--are a priority, making them feel culpable for, say, spending extra hours at work.

The result? Women pile on more, accepting less rejuvenating time for themselves. "Some do feel a sense of helplessness about it," says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. "But they feel they have no control, so they don't try to do anything about it."

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