Maybe You Have Neurasthenia, a 19th-Century Diagnosis for Burnout

People like to believe that now is the most hectic time in human history, whenever now happens to be. Take the 19th century, as WHYY’s NewsWorks reports. Two hundred years ago, if modern life left you so fatigued or stressed out that it physically pained you, giving you stomachaches or headaches, your friendly family physician might’ve diagnosed you with “neurasthenia,” a term coined by neurologist George Beard.

It’s like a 19th-century version of burnout; even the historical context sounds rather familiar:

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.

As a diagnosis, neurasthenia was rather fuzzy, but it generally referred to a weakness of nerves; it meant that “you were working hard at something, you worked yourself into sickness, and you needed to recover, take some time off, get back into the rat race,” historian David Schuster explained to the public radio station. (Schuster would know; he recently wrote a book on the diagnosis, Neurasthenic Nation.)

The treatment for neurasthenia was different according to one’s gender: For women, six to eight weeks of bed rest was typically advised. The men’s treatment, however, seems a lot more fun: Run away, far away, from the city, and “rediscover your cowboy roots” in nature. Perhaps next weekend, to recover from your own neurasthenia, you should try a little of both.

Neurasthenia, a 19th-Century Diagnosis for Burnout