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The Body Blues

by Marie-Annette Brown, Jo Robinson

Chapter 1
The Body Blues
Women's Number One Mood Problem

Many women with this syndrome have sleep difficulties as well. They have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep--or they sleep too much. The common denominator is that they feel drowsy during the day, whether due to a lack of sleep or general drowsiness. Those times when they feel alert and energetic all day long are a welcome relief.

Difficulty concentrating is another telltale sign of this disorder, especially in women 35 and older. The women have trouble focusing on tasks, absorbing complex information, or finding just the right words to say when they talk. Verbal slips and difficulty remembering names--even the names of people they know really well--can be a source of embarrassment. Curiously, these mental lapses can come and go. For days at a time, they feel mentally sharp. Then, for some unknown reason, their thinking becomes fuzzy or scattered. It's as though their IQs had dropped 10 points overnight. Middle-aged women can be especially troubled by these mental symptoms because they fear they might have the early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Many of the women also feel stressed and irritable. They can be annoyed by simple things such as the sound of construction from a neighbor's house, a partner's eating habits, or being put on hold on the phone. Even when the pressure is off, some women find it hard to relax. A drink or two is a fast way to unwind, but relying on alcohol to relax can lead to alcohol dependency. A more common way to relieve stress is to watch TV or read a book. These two remedies work reasonably well, but they take away from the little time women have to be creative or take on ambitious projects.

But the most common and vexing symptoms of this syndrome are overeating and weight gain. In the morning, most of the women have little trouble controlling their appetite. But sometime in the afternoon, they begin to snack. They also feel an urge to eat whenever they are feeling anxious, tired, or stressed. Women say that certain foods are more soothing than others, especially pasta, pizza, sweets, bread, and chocolate. In fact, a craving for sweets and starches is one of the defining characteristics of this syndrome.

The logical result of feeling too tired to exercise and eating too much is being overweight. Some women manage to keep the pounds off through rigorous dieting, but most plateau at a high weight or continue to gain weight year after year. One reason being overweight is so troubling to them is that they can't cover it up. If need be, they can disguise the fact that they're sleeping poorly, forgetting names, or feeling irritable. But they can't deny that they're overweight. It's the one visible sign of their distress.

There's another symptom that one might expect to find on this list--a depressed mood. But women who have this syndrome do not have serious mood problems. Unlike women with clinical depression, they do not feel sad or tearful all the time. They don't feel hopeless or think that the world would be a better place without them. When something good happens to them, they feel genuinely happy. Most of them perform well at work, even those with high-level, demanding jobs. Nonetheless, they can be very distressed by their fatigue, eating problems, irritability, confused thinking, or sleep difficulties. These symptoms interfere with their relationships, frustrate their ambitions, and rob them of the full enjoyment of life. It's as though their bodies were depressed, but not their minds. They have what I call the "Body Blues."

What Is the Body Blues?

The textbook term for the Body Blues is vegetative depressive symptoms. A woman with this condition has three or more of the symptoms listed below to such a degree that they diminish her enjoyment in life and sense of well-being.

Eating too much and gaining weight
Low energy
Difficulty concentrating
Sleep difficulties
Irritability or tension
Daytime drowsiness
Decreased interest in sex
Mild anxiety
Mild depression
Heightened sensitivity to rejection or criticism

A woman can have the Body Blues all by itself, or it can be a part of other disorders. For example, PMS could be viewed as the Body Blues plus bloating, cramps, or breast tenderness. Postpartum depression, or the "baby blues," could be seen as the Body Blues but with more severe mood problems. Menopausal symptoms could be characterized as the Body Blues plus hot flashes and physical signs of aging. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, could be regarded as a seasonal siege of the Body Blues. Embedded in all these disorders is the same core group of symptoms listed above.

Men can have symptoms of the Body Blues as well, especially those 40 or older. But the syndrome is far more common in women. First of all, most of the disorders that include symptoms of the Body Blues, such as PMS and the baby blues, are exclusive to women. But even the unisex disorders, such as SAD, are three or more times as common in women as men. For reasons I will explore in more depth in chapter 2, the Body Blues seems to go hand in hand with being female.


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