Overcoming Overwhelm

Interview with Dr. Aviva Romm on Becoming Health Rebels

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Dr Aviva Romm, Yale-trained physician specializing in women's health

Corinna Wood interviews Dr. Aviva Romm about her work with supporting women in reclaiming their health and overcoming common adrenal-thyroid issues. 

Corinna: Aviva, what is SOS, and how does it impact women you see in your practice?

Aviva: SOS is a term I coined which means Survival Overdrive Syndrome, and it’s based on a few things: one, it started because so many of my patients were coming in and saying things like, “Aviva, Dr. Aviva, I feel like I’m constantly in overdrive. I feel like I’m always stuck in survival mode. I feel like I’m going from one thing to the next, and I can’t turn off the stress. I’m constantly overwhelmed.”

I started to pay attention to the words women were using and at the same time started looking at the impact of various contributors to health and imbalance on what symptoms that they were exhibiting, for example brain fog, forgetfulness, poor concentration, weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hormonal problems, insulin resistance, anxiety, depression, fertility challenges, mood challenges.

When I started to put it all together, it was really interesting that what I discovered was that the hormone cortisol which is the mediator, if you will, or messenger coming from our survival system for so many woman was either in overdrive, they were producing too much and feeling the downstream impact of that which is all of the conditions that I’ve mentioned, or they had been in overdrive for so long that now they were experiencing the flip side which is that their bodies weren’t producing as much cortisol or adrenaline. 

What they were experiencing was extreme exhaustion, often autoimmune conditions, recurrence of latent viral infections and things that were really taking them out, making them exhausted, and often sometimes so significantly that they were unable to participate in their lives.

I put two and two together and said, “Wow, these symptoms, so many of them, if not all of them actually, are coming from the results of the impact of the survival response or stress response system on their health.” I started calling it Survival Overdrive Syndrome, and my patients really related. They were like, “Oh, that sounds like me,” and the term was born.

Corinna: You seem to view sleep as a form of medicine. I love that. How has your perspective on that developed, and would you share some of your personal and/or professional experience regarding benefits of sleep for women’s health?

Aviva: Sleep actually is medicine, and it’s particularly important medicine for SOS because much as we like to think of ourselves as modern human creatures, and much as science likes to tell us that nature is unimportant and science can always win over nature, the reality is that as human beings we are hardwired to be in harmony and relationship with our planet, including the 24-hour cycle of the Earth around the sun. 

That’s called our circadian rhythm. Cortisol is released on what’s called a diurnal rhythm, which means it’s got two 12-hour cycles. Those 12-hour cycles together make up that circadian rhythm. Cortisol should be high in the morning, decrease throughout the day and be much lower at night to where it reaches its lowest point about midnight or 1:00 AM or so and then it starts to go up again.

Corinna: You encourage women to be health rebels. What does that look like?

Aviva: Okay, so there’s a few things here. The 24/7 world we’re living in is based on a very western model of achievement, productivity and capitalism. If you look at other countries, let’s say some of the Scandinavian countries, they have a different value system that they’re operating under. They value health, happiness, time off, social time, and family. They work shorter days, and some of these countries have four-day work weeks, and up to 18 months of maternity leave for women. You just put that right on the overlay of everything, and you’re going to see lower stress. 

We live in a culture that is demanding more of us than we are evolutionarily capable of delivering, and it is killing us.

One of the ways that we can be a health rebel is by saying, “No, you can’t have my health. You can’t have my life. You can’t have my mind, my mood, my body, my hormones,” to the dominant culture. 

We do that by staking a claim for reevaluating what our priorities are, what our needs are, how we define success and within that how we create lives that keep us supported, replenished, nourished and healthy. We’re redefining success as health, satisfaction, time to breathe, time to be well, and we’re defining how we get to health as feeling replenished, nourished and having reserves. 

That means eating well, sleeping well, making time for being with the people we love, being creative. It does means making some decisions about what’s important you. That’s one thing.

Another thing is that as women, we have been taught to be nice, be good, play it small, be seen and not heard, be good girls. This can literally kill us . . . Being a good girl can literally kill you. How do I mean? Well, let’s say you go to the doctor’s office and your doctor is saying, “No, I don’t think you have a medical problem. You’re just actually stressed, or you’re a new mom,” and it turns out that you actually do have a medical problem. You have an autoimmune disease or you have Lyme disease or you have something else going on, and you don’t get that taken care of. What’s the outcome?

What’s the outcome if you are at a job and you’re never getting the promotion that you deserve? Every guy around you is getting promoted, or you’re being treated differently, or you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work and you don’t speak up. This can kill you short term or long term. We have to learn to smartly, wisely and safely of course – because we don’t want to get assaulted or hurt – use our voices and speak up. We have to be rebellious.

About the Author

A featured speaker at the Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference this October, Aviva Romm is a midwife, herbalist, and Yale-trained MD, bridging the best of traditional medicine with good science for over three decades. 
Originally published at the Southeast Wise Women website,

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