Are You Headed for Hurried Woman Syndrome?

Dec. 10, 2002 -- Teresa Lee, a mom with three children and her own hair salon, is constantly on the go from morning until night, trying to do it all.

On a typical afternoon, the Lumberton, Texas, woman was preparing food and managing her children's schedules, but the craziness of coping with soccer practice and math homework was starting to take its toll.

"There were times that I felt like I'd get really stressed out," Lee said. "And I went to my doctor and told him 'I have a really low energy level, I don't want to work out, I get kind of grumpy.' And he said, 'Hey, I've got a name for it.'"

Her diagnosis? "Hurried woman syndrome," a newly identified condition. The doctor who coined the phrase says the condition affects an estimated 60 million women, or one out of four in the United States, between the ages of 25 and 55.

Lee's physician, Dr. Brent Bost, a private obstetrician-gynecologist in Beaumont, Texas, and the author of The Hurried Woman Syndrome, recently presented data at a medical conference showing that many doctors are finding this new syndrome in patients leading today's frenetic lifestyles. In his own 15 years as a physician, he had seen the condition many times, and that it is a form of minor depression.

"The hurried woman syndrome is the term we coin because it seems to underlie the cause of the problem, which is stress and hurry, and busy lifestyle choices that a lot of people have assumed are normal," said Bost, who trained at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

The syndrome often affects women juggling working outside the home and family, but single women with tough careers and stay-at-home moms can be susceptible, too, he said.

Symptoms Mimic Depression

The four major symptoms associated with the syndrome are weight gain, low sex drive, moodiness and fatigue. Over the course of time, experts believe, these symptoms can trigger changes in brain chemistry that are very similar to depression, although not as severe.

"No one goes to bed one night with their brain chemistry perfectly balanced, feeling fine, and then wakes up the next day with five symptoms of depression in a major depression," Bost said. "They go through phases of that. So when you have two or three symptoms, you're not really normal but you're not really in a major depression either."

Women suffering from the symptoms should consult their doctor, as there are medical conditions that can cause them, too. For example, anemia, low thyroid, some infections and other metabolic problems can cause fatigue and weight gain.

Bost says that stress is probably the single most important contributing factor to hurried woman syndrome. Some people might say that stress is a normal part of life, but constant stress isn't a good thing, he said. It takes a toll on families, marriages and health.

Sex therapist Laura Berman says many patients haven't heard of hurried woman syndrome before simply because the tolls exacted by constant stress — the main reason for the condition — are underacknowledged by both women and their doctors. Women tend to dismiss the idea that they are doing too much, Berman says.

"We're pushed to excel and we don't make the allowances we should to take care of ourselves," she said. "It is expected that we will take our health for granted."

Women React Differently to Stress

It's both a societal issue and a medical one, said Berman's sister, urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman.

"We often don't realize the damage to the body that's caused by chronic stress," she said. "If you don't slow down, and you don't find ways to resolve it, your body will pay the price."

Men and women react differently to stress, both emotionally and physically, she said. A man goes into "fight mode" and produces testosterone. Often he will often become more sexually active.

"A woman will produce oxytoxin," the urologist said. "Her sex drive will lessen. She will have a higher risk of heart disease, obesity and other eating disorders."

Some types of stress can't be avoided, such as a having a sick child or a high-powered career, Bost said. However, for the majority of women, much of the stress is avoidable or at least could be managed better.

For some, the solution to hurried woman syndrome lies with antidepressants, he said.

Taking It Easy

Others rely on three pieces of advice: simplify, prioritize, and organize your life.

Numerous household responsibilities can aggravate the symptoms. Cheri Cook, of Beaumont, Texas, believes her job as a stay-at-home mom is a perfect example.

"I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking all of this stuff, 'I've got to do this, I've got to do that, what should I do first?' And I look over at my husband and he's sleeping, and I think, 'He's not thinking of these things.'

"I have tried to cut back, I have tried to simplify," Cook said. "I've learned how to say no, and I can even say no to my children."

Laura Berman says that if you're experiencing heart pains, sleeplessness, loss of libido, a change in diet, a change in sexual response, or depression, you should take a look at the stress in your life and ask yourself some questions: "What are my expectations?" and "What is my list of priorities?"

"Women have a habit of putting themselves last on their list of priorities," she said. "They make promises to themselves, 'I'll do something for myself when I have time.'"

Lee also said she has made an effort to simplify and prioritize her life, and it has worked.

"I'm such a changed person, so much happier," she said. "Not that I was depressed before, but just crazy. I was tired of everything being so crazy."