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Busy is the new sick

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  July 31, 2013 07:03 AM

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busy.jpg In the past few years, I've observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it's easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness. It's one with which, as a fellow sufferer, I empathize especially.

Being excessively busy has become so much a part of our culture that we've developed an extended vocabulary for it, like Eskimos and snow: tapped out, laid flat, on overload, crazy busy, fried. The other day, while discussing an interesting potential project with me, a colleague asked if I "had the bandwidth" to take it on.

The pervasiveness of busyness is such that we may not even notice it anymore. A patient of mine wanted to be tested for anemia--why else could she be so tired? It didn't occur to her that working full time, going to school, and caring for a severely disabled child might have something to do with her exhaustion.

An editorial last year suggested that busyness is a problem of privilege, that we take on extra activities voluntarily to boost our egos and salve our anxiety. "Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness" the editorialist argued.

That may be true, for some. Padding your kids' resumes by running them (and yourself) ragged with hockey and Mandarin and ballroom dancing is unnecessary and probably not as much fun for kids or parents as sitting around in your pajamas eating Fluffernutter sandwiches and watching Simpsons reruns.

But for many of the patients I see, giving up unnecessary busyness is not the challenge. It's a job that used to be done by two people; eldercare that, in a previous generation, would have been shared among family members who lived close by; a boss who expects an e-mail to be answered at 2 am because...it can be.

For the poor, as this recent editorial by science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff points out, stress has a particularly pernicious effect on health. Velasquez-Manoff points out that it's not busyness itself, but lack of control and resources to deal with stress that busyness engenders that makes poor people less healthy than rich people. He writes:

It’s not necessarily the strain of a chief executive facing a lengthy to-do list, or a well-to-do parent’s agonizing over a child’s prospects of acceptance to an elite school. Unlike those of lower rank, both the C.E.O. and the anxious parent have resources with which to address the problem. By definition, the poor have far fewer.

Which begs the question as to why those of us who do have some control and resources voluntarily drive ourselves to the point where we need to consult a physician about the consequences of our self-induced stress.

I've been thinking about this and plan to sit down and figure out which activities I can eliminate, as soon as I have the bandwidth.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »

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