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Could lockdown spell the end of Rushing Woman Syndrome?

‘I don’t want it to take a health crisis to wake you up, to remind you, of how precious life is,’ said Dr Libby Weaver, a nutritional biochemist, as she finished her 2014 TEDx talk in Queenstown, New Zealand. 

Her words seem more poignant now, as families across the world have been torn apart by Covid-19, but back then she was speaking then about Rushing Woman Syndrome.

Dr Weaver coined the term and authored a book of the same name in 2011, and if you’re not a ‘rushing woman’, the chances are you know one. 

‘I was noticing an enormous change in women’s health, and it was a feeling that women had a pile of things on their to-do list, they had overflowing emails in their inboxes… It was as if there weren’t enough hours in the day,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We couldn’t keep up with everything being asked of them or that they wanted to be part of.’

The juggling of everything on our to-do lists and neverending sense of urgency, she says, is leading to ‘relentless’ output of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which come with myriad physical health issues, including problems with menstruation, menopause, energy levels and metabolism – though this is not a conclusive list. 

With many now forcibly on pause thanks to lockdown, some have an opportunity to see how they’ve been moving through life in fast-forward. A global pandemic was not the health crisis Dr Weaver meant in her talk, but it has definitely given some the opportunity to reevaluate. 

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Alexandra Wood, 39, is one of Savile Row’s first female tailors and juggles her business Alexandra Wood Menswear with caring for her three children, having started her company with just £1,000 maternity pay when her daughter was born. 

‘My eyes are everywhere,’ she tells us. ‘I’m dealing with all aspects of my business, while looking after the children so it’s full-on.’

Since restrictions meant her bricks and mortar store had to close its doors, she’s had the opportunity to reflect and find the positive. 

Alexandra explains: ‘I’ve had to really focus on the most beneficial use of my time and what will help me grow the business in this turbulent time. I started my business with a newborn and in a recession so where there’s a will, there’s a way.

‘I’ve always been someone who loves going at full speed ahead but I have realised that simple time with the children doing TikTok dances bring about a lot of joy. 

‘I will also make sure I have more time with the children and that will mean streamlining my business and doing things that only make a difference. The art of delegation started in lockdown and will absolutely continue.’

Caroline Johnson, 42, also started her business Cheerleader PR while on maternity leave with her second daughter and has been a rushing woman.

She says: ‘Most days and weeks my head would be struggling, trying to keep all the plates spinning. I’d see it with my friends too, especially those with their own businesses who often find it impossible to switch off.’

Lockdown has meant her husband has taken on more of the household duties while she works in the spare room. 

‘When I look at my typical day before lockdown I wonder how I kept up with myself and kept everything going,’ says Caroline. ‘I was exhausted a lot of the time and needed to recharge at weekends.

‘I wonder what I was doing it for and what I was trying to prove. But equally, I loved a lot of it and miss it.

‘Funnily enough, I find lockdown just as tiring in some ways. Maybe because it has different pressures.’

While Dr Weaver knows of women who share these experiences, lockdown has also shown us the other side of the coin.

She notes: ‘It can be such a gift to reflect and say “I was doing x, y, and z and I can see now, I don’t want or need to do that.”

‘But that requires a degree of privilege to have your basic needs met – food, clothing and shelter – to be able to do that.’

‘The other scenario is, I do know a number of women for whom everything has sped up and had more responsibility fall to them.’

Key workers like nurse Jamie-Louise Docherty, 28, know this reality all too well. A new mum to a one-year-old son, she’s not currently working with Covid-19 patients but is struggling with not seeing friends.

‘It feels like my support system is missing,’ Jamie-Louise says. ‘I am missing baby classes and meeting up with my mum friends.

‘All of our babies turned one in the last couple of months which we had lots of plans for so it’s just been adjusting to a series of disappointments.

‘But everything else is the same, and probably amplified being in the house so much more like I feel very on edge.

‘My brain is in so many places and it has never been more obvious.’

Jamie is able to divide up household duties with her husband, though she sometimes feels that the mental load of remembering what needs doing falls to her. 

Dr Weaver says in homes like this, many women can end up doing ‘the frantic double shift’ – working hard in their careers only to pick up much of the household and parenting duties when at home with little rest.

‘Women have been, I guess, just gently alert all the time,’ she tells us. ‘We see so much more in our vision so much more that needs doing so I think biologically, we are a little bit predisposed to keep doing. It’s the compromise on our rest that’s enormously impacted on the way our nervous system is able to function. 

‘I think the shift has been a lot slower with men to pick up work, that’s not paid work, so around the house, looking after children, shopping, cleaning, all those other activities.’

Rather than pursuing balance, which can seem all too unattainable, Dr Weaver says it comes down to prioritising and adjusting our feelings on other people’s perceptions of us. 

‘I think what we do is we might rate ourselves or judge ourselves harshly for not being a good enough fill-in-the-blank,’ she explains. ‘Not a good enough colleague, not a good enough mother, daughter, sister, friend.

‘When we live forever in the service of others, which I think a lot of women do with real love in their heart – and my goodness, we need that – we need to be very comfortable saying no when we need to.’

Often rushing women describe needing others to perceive them as kind, thoughtful and selfless, which she says goes to show what a ‘beautiful place’ this desire to be all things to all people comes from. 

‘We’re so stressed, we think it’s all the people and the tasks and the situations and we stop catching a glimpse of the fact that it’s our responses to all of those things and the way we think about those things that makes those things stressful or not.’

For women who don’t have the luxury of dumping anything off their to-do lists, Dr Weaver says it’s all in the breath and finding the joy: ‘One of the things that science has shown that lowers stress hormones more effectively than just about anything is to extend the length of our exhalation.

‘A slow, long exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is a branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is the opposite of fight and flight.’ 

She suggests putting your legs up the wall as you lie in bed with your arms stretched out and diaphragmatically breathing for 10 minutes. This is also good for mental clarity and can improve many bodily functions including sleep, digestion, circulation, lowering blood pressure and pulse.

As for finding what feels good, Dr Weaver says: ‘Joy gives us an irreplaceable depth of energy. Think what brings me joy and how, or what brings a smile to my face and how could I incorporate more moments of that? 

‘You might identify something that brings you joy, and it’s going to take an hour and you literally might not have an hour spare but you might have five minutes to yourself at this point or first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, and it’s a time for you to write in a journal or look out the window and watch what nature’s doing.

‘I live in Australia now but I was living in New Zealand when all of the dreadful earthquakes were happening in Christchurch. People didn’t have toilets that flushed for six months or more. 

‘Still to this day when I flush the toilet I think “I’m so thankful for this”. Those little things that are so simple and yet it’s so privileged that we have food and a warm bed. 

‘I hope in putting things into perspective there is a degree of slow down for women inside themselves and what they perceive they need to be happy and fulfilled. It’s often a lot simpler than we think it once was.’

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