We face an epidemic of excessive busyness

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 email to be answered at 2am 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.

Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician and a Boston Globe columnist.  She blogs at In Practice at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness For Women Over 50


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  • karen3

    Ya’ know, those are symptoms of hypothyroid. And Cushings. Hope you ran a TSH and checked for zebra stripes before that dx.

    • buzzkillerjsmith

      Frequently sought, rarely seen.

      • karen3

        Prevalence of hypothyroid disease is between 4-8 percent in the US, with numbers at 20% for sixty year old women. Can you explain your definition of rare?

        • buzzkillerjsmith

          Hypothyroidism is not rare. Hypothyroidism as a cause of busyness is.

      • Kathleen

        Nearly 20 years ago I told our family doc that I was so so tired and she told me that I push myself, which has been true my whole life, and I had multiple stresses over which I had no control. She actually wrote me an Rx to take a vacation. AND she ordered a TSH test that came back at 12-something. Still had serious multiple stresses over which I had no control, and that went on for more than a decade. But at least my thyroid levels are much better, thank you very much. And, btw, I have been a zebra more than once in my life. I mean not even one in a million. With genuinely rare conditions, someone still has it 100%.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    Thoreau said it all about this country over 150 years ago. Sub sole nil novi.

  • Kara

    Excessive busyness is an unfortunate trend for people that choose to focus on pointless things and temporary gratification. In life there should be priorities and sacrifices. Adults are not machines and should realize their limitations (not all do). Medicating and allowing societal pressures to control you is not the answer. As you are aware, excessive stress can be debilitating. I hope you and like-minded individuals realize your bandwidth so you can enjoy what is truly important in life.

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