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Neurasthenia or nervous prostration anyone?

Neurasthenia. Recognise the term? No? Well, it was coined by George Beard, a 19th century neurologist, to describe what we would now call burnout – as we started to explore last week. So, nothing new then. Described thus –

A state of constant fatigue, loss of motivation and energy and often insomnia and muscle aches associated with general and persistent unhappiness. In the present state of knowledge, and in the absence of any evidence of a cause, the state described as neurasthenia is considered not to be of organic origin and, in particular, to have nothing to do with nerve function. (Collins Medical Dictionary)

Any of those symptoms ring true for you? Interestingly, most current medical dictionaries giving a definition concur that it was secondary to psychological factors not physical, and would now be known, in part, as stress.

It was also popularly called nervous prostration – imagine giving that answer in response to how you are feeling at your next work appraisal, or to concerned friends.

Further digging (this has really caught my imagination, as you can tell!) reveals that neurasthenia affected both men and women, and both upper and lower classes. According to a fascinating (and very long) article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, neurasthenia was a fashionable and highly prevalent disease that accounted for up to 11% of hospital discharges from the late 1890’s to 1930.

I came across a little questionnaire that enables you to work out your Burnout Quotient – how high your risk is of becoming burned out, which would presumably serve as a wake up call to do something about it. Symptoms listed include feeling

tired, depressed, physically and emotionally exhausted, wiped out,

trapped, worthless, weary, disillusioned, hopeless,

anxious, rejected, susceptible to illness

A sobering list, and one that, in itself, leaves me feeling quite flat. As humans, we are made for so much more than this, but it seems that life, and our choices in response to it, take over and can leave us burned out, to varying degrees.

So how do we respond? What do we do about it, and how do we prevent it in the first place?

In Victorian times, if you were suffering from neurasthenia, bed rest for neurastheniayou had worked yourself into a sickness from hard work, and you were then required to take some time off to recover. The commonest cure was rest. This might involve taking the waters at Bath, or somewhere similar. Interestingly, treatments varied for women and men.

Women were prescribed 6 to 8 weeks of strict bed rest, with firm instructions to avoid any mental or emotional excitement, correspondence or interruption from the outside world. There might even be a sneaky wee bed pan in the bed to avoid the need to get up at all.

Can you imagine?!

Women readers, think about your average day and all that involves. Then picture yourself stepping back from ALL of that and lying in bed. For 6 weeks. Men, imagine your partners or wives not doing all that they normally do, ceasing all correspondence or outside interruptions, and thus putting all that onto your shoulders (ooh, I hear a little trouble brewing for me!)

For men, at least American men, the directive was to go and rediscover their cowboy roots, to reconnect with nature and their wild inner men. And while that sounds like much more fun, remains equally impractical for the majority.

There must be another way? What is the point of all this?

I simply want to make you stop.

Pay attention to your own body, and what it is telling you.

If you have an inkling of neurasthenia, how are you going to rest?

 

 

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