We Might Be Suffering From Neurasthenia, the 19th Century Term for Burnout

Illustration for article titled We Might Be Suffering From Neurasthenia, the 19th Century Term for Burnout

If the dogged pace of the modern age has left you weary, anxious, and afflicted by aches and malaise, you may require a more historical diagnosis. We tend to refer to these symptoms collectively as burnout, but the Victorians called it “neurasthenia.”


WHYY’s The Pulse reports that the term was coined by neurologist George Beard, its genesis a response to industrialization and the rapidity that began to characterize life in the latter half of the 19th century:

“‘The condition was predicated on the idea that our bodies run on nervous energy,’ explained history professor David Schuster, who has written a new book called Neurasthenic Nation.

‘This was a popular idea in the late 19th century—the time of Edison—and it was thought that we eat food, which is digested into energy, and our nervous systems transport the energy to our organs. And when our bodies ran low on this energy, it could cause all kinds of mental and physical health problems.’

The decades after the Civil War were a time of rapid change for [the United States]. Cities were industrializing and growing, the railroad was expanding, the invention of the telephone was around the corner, the stock ticker was about to go live. Americans, it seemed, were doing more than ever before, and were growing concerned about the impact of life in the fast lane on their health.”

Schuster explains to WHYY’s The Pulse that a neurasthenia diagnosis meant “you were working hard at something, you worked yourself into a sickness, and you needed to recover, take some time off, get back in the rat race.” William James, a 19th century physician and philosopher referred to the condition as “Americanitis” — a gentle jab at the burgeoning tendency of Americans to fret about their health, as well as a “humble brag that America was more modern than any other nation.”

In Victorian England, a diagnosis like neurasthenia might have called for a trip to Bath to take advantage of its hot springs (and to gossip at the Pump Room à la Jane Austen’s characters). American women were prescribed with a rest cure: “six to eight weeks of best rest, sometimes even with bed pans so they never had to get up.”

Men, of course, were not subjected to such intense constraints. As New York notes, they were instructed to “run away, far away, and ‘rediscover your cowboy roots’ in nature.”

Neither option strikes me as especially appealing, but all the same, I love a good rest cure. Pardon me while I purchase a plane ticket to England and make reservations at the Pump Room.


Image via Getty.



The rest cure was actually pretty horrifying. Weeks-to-months in bed with NOTHING to do. No reading material, no visitors, nothing “stimulating,” no getting up to use the commode or bathe. NOTHING. Just the bed (usually in a hospital, so the room was sterile, too) and bland soups delivered by a nurse. Women who were previously “anxious” or “nervous” or whatever bullshit got them prescribed the rest cure were physically weakened from prolonged inactivity, depressed, and emotionally broken. It was pretty much solitary confinement.