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Americanitis: The role of a 19th-century ‘disease’ in current views of health and wellness

Posted on 04-23-16 in Health and Wellness, Mental Health

Americans are notorious for living life too fast, eating too much junk food and having too much stress. Being unable to cope with the pace of modern life was something that was first introduced by American neurologist George Miller Beard, M.D., in the late 1800s.

Originally, neurasthenia described the disease of the nervous system that resulted when a person “exhausted the nerves,” and resulted in a wide range of physical, emotional and social discomforts such as feeling run down, fatigued, anxious and irritable. If you were living in the 19th century, feeling sluggish, overworked or stressed out would have meant that you had this neurological condition.

The “rest cure” for neurasthenia

In the 19th century, neurasthenia was a distinct neurological condition that resulted from the fast-paced life of Americans and, as such, was primarily diagnosed and treated in the United States. Beard even called the condition “American nervousness,” which was used to describe the difficulty people had coping with the modern pace of life and could only be cured by resting and living a more simple and healthy lifestyle. The idea of neurasthenia was formulated based on the fact that individuals could exhaust or weaken their nervous system trying to keep up with the busy and hectic pace of modern American life.

Later, William James, a physician and philosopher called this illness “Americanitis,” which he popularized as the price Americans were paying for being more modern and advanced than any other country. Well-educated or affluent Americans — that included businessmen, scholars and middle-class Americans — seemed to be more susceptible to developing this condition.

Neurologist S. Weir Mitchell developed the popular “rest cure” as a treatment for neurasthenia, which consisted of six to eight weeks of bed rest to restore the body’s vitality. Other popular remedies included products such as “Neurosine,” which contained cannabis and lessened agitation and migraines, while alcohol-containing potions and elixirs, and “talking cures,” were also advertised to help provide relief.

Modern day neurasthenia

Although the prevalence of neurasthenia in the United States died down by the 20th century, scholars suggest that our categorization simply became more advanced. Patients who were diagnosed with neurasthenia in the 19th century are now diagnosed with more advanced and specific psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, which seemingly took its place.

The idea that the stress of living fast-paced lives could deplete our energy is something that has been around for over a hundred years, yet Americans continue to live busy, mentally stimulating lives. While the new and advanced technologies of the telegraph and steam power seemed to contribute to the nerve energy depletion of Americans in the late 19th century, we continue to see modern technological advancements such as the internet, social media and video games.

The wide range neurasthenia symptoms — including chronic headaches or pain, digestive problems, respiratory distress, exhaustion, irritability and extreme emotions — parallels the symptoms of modern-day mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and somatoform disorders. People who had been diagnosed with neurasthenia were confined to their beds, while today people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, or legally prescribed medications to calm nerves.

Physical and mental health conditions such as major depression, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression and chronic fatigue syndrome have been described as some of the modern disorders that were typically categorized as neurasthenia in the 1900s. While a patient who visits the doctor for symptoms such as exhaustion, fatigue, headaches and buzzing in the ears isn’t going to get a diagnosis of neurasthenia and a prescription of two months of bed rest, slowing down busy lifestyles and getting adequate sleep may be more beneficial than one might think.

The Sovereign Health Group offers a holistic array of behavioral health treatment services for people with mental illness, substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions. Comprehensive and individualized treatment plans are provided to patients based on each patient’s specific needs. For more information about the behavioral health treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.