Bang! The pavement flew up to meet me. Rushing to visit a museum half an hour before it closed, I ran at full pelt into the security barrier. As I sprawled on the ground while small children rescued the contents of my handbag, I realised it was the second time I’d fallen over that week. How on earth had my life got so out of control?
When I poured out my woes on Facebook later that evening, a friend in Australia messaged me: ‘Classic Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’.
‘Ha ha, very funny,’ I retorted.
‘No, it’s a real syndrome,’ she replied. ‘Google Dr Libby.’
And so began the journey to out myself as a Rushing Woman – a term coined in 2011 by Dr Libby Weaver, a Sydney-based nutritional biochemist.
Based on the experiences of her frazzled female clients over the past two decades, her new book Rushing Woman’s Syndrome: the Impact of a Never-Ending To-Do List on Your Health, documents the psychological and biochemical damage caused by a life of stress. ‘Never before in my work have I seen women in such a mad rush to do everything and be everything to all people,’ she writes feelingly.
In New Zealand and Australia, Libby is regarded as a rock star of the nutrition world. Her celebrity followers include Hugh Jackman and Miranda Kerr (her new book has an endorsement by Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness on the cover). Her TEDx talk in Queenstown last March, ‘The pace of modern life versus our cavewoman biochemistry’ has racked up 167,606 views. Her last book, Accidentally Overweight, was a bestseller.
But what sets Libby’s research apart is her sense of urgency. ‘There is a crisis facing women’s health,’ she says. ‘There’s no leisure time, sleep is compromised more and more. Women feel responsible for everything and everyone, 24/7. And they feel unsupported in that responsibility.’
A Rushing Woman, I discovered, survives on ridiculously little sleep, and caffeine. Tick. She has a cortisol stomach (pesky weight she can’t shift) and is often covered in bruises. Tick, tick. She is a people-pleaser, and pretty much always has some daddy damage (gulp). ‘I have yet to meet a Rushing Woman whose father didn’t break her heart,’ Libby states.
So much of her research resonated with my life. As a self-employed writer, I’m never in bed before half-past midnight. Tiredness makes me clumsy, and I shout at inanimate objects that slip out of my grasp. I pile review books and CDs on my stairs, then forget and trip over them. I run everywhere, and yet never seem to get any fitter. Often I arrive sweating at the theatre, having missed the first act.
My phone and laptop are rapidly running out of memory. ‘No more capacity’ flashes the alert. Frankly, I know the feeling.
True, the Rushing Woman is not helped by her eating habits. Too busy to shop properly, she lives on takeaways or non-food ingredients out of packets (I blush inwardly thinking of my Bombay mix habit). Coffee gets us through the day, but actually it drives the acute stress hormone (adrenaline) that is behind anxiety.
Worse still, we ‘inhale’ food rather than chew properly. So the body has no time to prepare for the influx of food with the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. However much we exercise, our tummy is often bloated. Historically we used to take much longer to prepare our meals and the aroma generated by slower cooking signalled to the stomach that food was on its way. But now we bolt down a sandwich at our desk. So how did we get into this state?
Libby believes that women’s lives have changed immeasurably in the past 20 years – because of the advent of the internet and the mobile phone we are now always ‘on’ and always reachable. We are key figures in the workforce, doing the same jobs that our fathers did. But we are maintaining the mother’s traditional responsibilities alongside the day job.
‘We are doing a frantic double-shift of work, day and night, that swings anywhere from comedy to chaos with very little rest.’ And it is killing us, Libby warns. Our ‘made it by the skin of our teeth’ lifestyle is causing a prolonged chemical cascade of stress hormones, which is making women depressed, overweight and in some cases infertile. We’re tired but wired, constantly alert for disaster or emergency (or even for last-minute pleasure, such as that elusive date or party invitation).
Driven multitaskers, we’re answering texts at 2am; checking emails at the traffic lights – ‘Whereas once upon a time when the lights were red, we’d let our minds wander or noticed the colour of the sky or listened to a great song on the radio,’ Libby recalls nostalgically.
Part of the problem is that we are urban 21st-century, sophisticated beings with ‘cavewoman biochemistry’. Existing in an amped-up ‘fight or flight’ mode means the body stores fat, avoids sleep and kicks intimacy into touch (too risky with the tiger or another tribe on the loose). This worked in the hunter-gatherer days when we were faced with risks everywhere. But most of us spend our lives in offices and homes, ferrying children to school, keeping partners and friends happy – there are precious few tigers. So we pile on weight, have broken sleep and rubbish digestion.
In her practice, Libby is seeing polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis and debilitating menopause, plus that old chestnut, diminished libido. If your body believes your life is in danger, she explains, the last thing it wants to do is mate and potentially bring a baby into an unsafe environment. So it believes it is doing us a great big favour by shutting down the adrenal production of progesterone.
If we have too little progesterone (which acts as an anti-anxiety agent, an antidepressant and a diuretic), and oestrogen becomes dominant, it makes us ‘fleshy, puffy and kind of crazy’. This means your thyroid gets a signal to either ramp up or decrease its hormone production, and your blood glucose is not properly regulated, which can lead you to feel like you want to eat your arm off.’ Which explains the fat stomach.
When pressure goes on too long for the body to handle, the stress hormone cortisol (made by adrenal glands) starts to break down muscles, suppresses our immune system and makes us crave sweet food.
Libby is not advocating that we all go back to being 1950s housewives. ‘I very much believe that we are emotionally strong and capable. But our physical body has never before had to behave with the intensity that it does now.’
For me, the most fascinating revelation in Libby’s book is her view that the Rushing Woman is running away from rejection. Many of us believe that we are not enough; that we need to be wittier, slimmer, more productive. So that we never, ever let anyone down and risk being rejected, we go into total overdrive.
From early on, our nervous system is wired so we can survive and please other people. If our father was emotionally absent we’re always trying to fill that gap. If he was a hero, no romantic partner can ever match him. A Rushing Woman is surrounded by company, noise and activity but is fundamentally lonely.
Even today as adults, the sense that we are not safe – when the boss yells at us or we’re chucked by a lover – sends a message to the pituitary gland that fires off the sympathetic nervous system and all of the necessary hormones, so we are ready to fight or flee.
Libby has her detractors. When Australian swimmer Lisa Curry blamed the collapse of her marriage on Rushing Woman’s Syndrome on national TV, it caused much amusement. Where was the evidence of Rushing Woman Syndrome in medical literature, critics argued.
But prominent psychologists and endocrinologists defended Libby’s thesis. Certainly, British health specialists are concerned by the consequences for the rushing women they encounter. Hormone doctor Marion Gluck tells me that she is seeing a ‘scary increase’ in infertility. And the number of women going through a premature menopause rises every year.
She puts it down to lifestyle and nutrition. ‘We are infiltrated by exogenous [external] hormones that have this effect on our body — it’s in the foods, the plastic, the water, and of course this huge use of the oral contraceptive pill.’
Holistic therapist Shailu Daria of the Bharti Vyas salon is seeing worrying imbalances – ‘Women overstretched with the amount going on in their lives come to us with tense shoulders, lower back pain, and can also suffer with hair problems as well as dry skin, eczema and acne. Many complain of insomnia, a low immune system and not being able to relax.’
So are there any Rushing Men? Libby says yes, but historically men are better at resting. ‘When they came home from a day of hunting or fighting, they knew they had to rest. They understood the power of restorative downtime, even if today it’s computer games or slumping in front of the TV.’
What is Libby’s cure? She suggests lifestyle revisions to help tell our body that we are safe and to bring it back into biochemical balance. These can include eating a high plant diet and more whole foods, trying meditation or yoga, prioritising sleep and giving up caffeine. We also need to unravel the stories about our past that we constructed to survive but that may no longer be relevant. ‘The relentless pursuit of never being rejected… what is it costing you?’ Libby asks.
Learning to say no is sometimes an act of kindness, she counsels. If you agree to help out and end up feeling resentful, it’s disrespectful to both you and your loved ones. ‘So often women will try to be the peacemaker and take on extra duties. And so the itch of our not-enoughness gets scratched even more,’ Libby says.
Practising gratitude is another way. ‘If you think: “Yes I have a busy life and it’s very full, but it’s incredibly rich because of the opportunities I have, and the love and care I can show other people and receive”, that adrenaline doesn’t get created.’
She recommends incorporating more ‘feminine rituals’ into our lives. So many of us have to behave like honorary men at work that we’ve forgotten how to trust the unfolding of life, how to live in the moment. ‘It is ultimately feminine to feel,’ says Libby.
She’s right. We need to get off that stress mountain. It will make us much nicer to be around.
Are you a sufferer?
The telltale signs:
- Coffee is a daily fix; you ‘inhale’ food without chewing
- Short-term memory is poor, not enough hours in the day
- Bloated stomach, digestive problems or IBS
- Sleep is compromised to get jobs done late at night
- You’re always irritable
- ‘Me time’ is a luxury you can never afford
- You rarely ask for help
- You take the phone to the toilet
- You rarely notice special moments
- You always look for more ways to be loved or praised
- You take short and shallow breaths
- You constantly feel guilty
- You bark ‘so busy’ or ‘stressed’ when people ask how you are
- You find it difficult to relax
- Your body stores fat, avoids sleep and libido is diminished due to existing in ‘fight or flight’ mode