It's called the Hurried Woman Syndrome (HWS) and more and more urban women appear to be suffering from it. The symptoms are easy to detect: constant feeling of tiredness, frequent mood swings, lack of sleep, problems in controlling weight and low sex drive. Although most urban women are aware that they are often rushed, they are not aware of what HWS is doing to their bodies and mind.
HWS mainly affects women between 25 and 55 years (usually with one or two children), and are desperately trying to juggle a hectic work life with an equally demanding home life, says US-based Dr Brent Bost, an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of `The Hurried Woman Syndrome', published in 2004. Bost claims that over 30 million women in the US suffer from HWS. Even in Britain, doctors are now talking about HWS affecting a large number of the female workforce.
In India, urban women have to tackle similar pressures of home, office and other responsibilities. "High stress and anxiety levels, mild depression, physical exhaustion, digestive disorders, low sex drive, unnatural weight gain and low self-esteem are all indicators that something is not right," says Dr Manju Mehta, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, AIIMS, while explaining how to detect HWS.
The root cause of HWS is chronic stress. "There are many kinds of stress and they vary from person to person. Sometimes, stress can't be avoided. However, in the case of a majority of the women, most of the stress can be avoided or managed better. These avoidable stresses are those that often come from a busy, hectic schedule and lifestyle choices that people make," says Dr Avdesh Sharma, Director of Parivartan Center For Mental Health, Hauz Khas, New Delhi.
Dr Mehta says, "In a typical `hurried woman', chronic stress over time can even cause a chemical imbalance in the brain's serotonin-dopamine system. This chemical imbalance causes fatigue, and often a vicious cycle starts - more fatigue causes more weight gain which causes more tiredness, lower libido, low self-esteem with more guilt, and the cycle continues." This condition is also described as a 'pre-depression state', as the symptoms are similar to depression, though milder.
Doctors say that it is unhealthy for people to accept their busy, stressful lives and not do anything about it. In fact, they warn, HWS can cause a lot of trouble. "If you stay forever hurried, you may neglect stress symptoms all together. Stress can damage the heart, cause blood pressure problems and several other complications. In fact, on an average, stress-related problems account for at least one-third of medical problems. And another one-third are treated simply by controlling stress. This is more so in women, for as a group, they are more vulnerable to depression," says Dr Sharma.
Although estrogen helps protect women from heart disease until menopause, a growing number of studies say stress can strip away that protection. A study conducted at the Wake Forest University's Baptist Medical Center (published in the March 2002 issue of The Green Journal - a publication of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) says that anything that reduces estrogen (and stress is a big culprit) puts women on a high-risk course for heart disease.
How does one prevent HWS from developing into clinical depression or causing any serious damage? "Any woman who exhibits HWS should see her doctor for a thorough check-up," says Dr Sharma, "but she also needs to examine her lifestyle.
Dr Sharma says that women are so adept at multi-tasking that they keep doing it without even realizing the damage it is causing them. "Stop being a superwoman," he tells his patients. "Stop being in high gear, 24 x 7. Accept your limitations," Dr Sharma often advises his patients. Besides, he says, women need to learn to say no. "Tell your husbands that they need to help out with the dishes; don't do anything during your coffee break; exercise a bit and get off that drastic diet," he tells his patients.
A few women have started doing all this. Says Sumiko Murgai Nanda, a fashion photographer, "I have two children, a hectic job and a very taxing daily schedule. Thankfully, I realized early that if I didn't take care of myself, I would disintegrate. So I zealously guard my 'time alone' and unfailingly schedule a 'just-me-activity' every day. Usually I prefer to do my exercises alone. If that is not possible, I just shut the door of my room and listen to some music or read a good book for a while. Even kids are not allowed in during my recharging time."
Dr Sharma adds: "Women need to make more time for themselves. They also need to learn to delegate. They must find ways to weave in regular de-stressing rituals into their lives such as yoga classes, watching a film or having a massage. Women need to give themselves regular treats, look forward to them throughout the week and stick to them."
However, avoiding HWS does not mean giving up on one's ambitions. Dr Mehta says that every woman has a right to use her capabilities fully and reach for the stars.
"It's okay to aim to be a superwoman but only after you have equipped yourself with the necessary skills, like time management, anxiety management and ability to compartmentalize life." She says women must work towards making life more smooth for themselves and never forget that that their own well-being must be at the top of the list, not bottom.