neurasthenia n : nervous breakdown (not in technical use)
Neurasthenia is a psycho-pathological term first used by George Miller Beard in 1869 to denote a condition with symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headache, impotence, neuralgia and depression.
Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname "Americanitis" (popularized by William James).
SymptomsIt was explained as being a result of exhaustion of the central nervous system's energy reserves, which Beard attributed to civilization. Physicians in the Beard school of thought associated neurasthenia with the stresses of urbanization and the pressures placed on the intellectual class by the increasingly competitive business environment. Typically, it was associated with upper class individuals in sedentary employment.
TreatmentBeard, with his partner A.D. Rockwell, advocated first electrotherapy and then increasingly experimental treatments for people with neurasthenia, a position that was controversial. An 1868 review posited that Beard's and Rockwell's grasp of the scientific method was suspect and did not believe their claims to be warranted.
William James was diagnosed with neurasthenia, and was quoted as saying, "I take it that no man is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide." (Townsend, 1996).
DiagnosisIn the late 1800s, neurasthenia became a "popular" diagnosis, expanding to include such symptoms as weakness, dizziness and fainting, and a common treatment was the rest cure, especially for women, who were the gender primarily diagnosed with this condition at that time. Virginia Woolf was known to have been forced to undergo rest cures, which she describes in her book On Being Ill. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper also suffers under the auspices of rest cure doctors, much like Gilman herself. Marcel Proust was said to suffer from neurasthenia. To capitalize on this epidemic, the Rexall drug company introduced a medication called 'Americanitis Elixir' which claimed to be a soother for any bouts related to Neurasthenia.
SkepticismIn 1895, Sigmund Freud reviewed electrotherapy and declared it a "pretense treatment." He highlighted the example of Elizabeth von R's note that "the stronger these were the more they seemed to push her own pains into the background,". See also placebo effect.
Nevertheless, neurasthenia was a common diagnosis in World War I - for example, every one of the c.1700 officers processed through the Craiglockhart War Hospital was diagnosed with neurasthenia - but its use declined a decade later.
TodayThe modern view holds that the main problem with the neurasthenia diagnosis was that it attempted to group together a wide variety of cases. In recent years, Richard M. Fogoros has posited that perhaps "neurasthenia" was a word that could include some psychiatric conditions, but more importantly, many physiological conditions marginally more understood by the medical community, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome, that according to Fogoros have one factor in common: dysautonomia. He emphasizes that the majority of patients who would have once been diagnosed with neurasthenia have conditions that are "real, honest-to-goodness physiologic (as opposed to psychologic) disorders... and while they can make anybody crazy, they are not caused by craziness." (see reference, below)
- Beard, G. (1869, Apr. 28). "Neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion". The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. (pp. 217-221)
- Weir Mitchell, S. (1884). Fat and Blood: an essay on the treatment of certain types of Neurasthenia and hysteria. Philadelphia: J. D. Lippincott & Co.
- Marcus, G. (1998, Jan. 26). "Where are the the elixers of yesteryear when we hurt?" The New York Times.
- Ross, D. (1991). "William James: Spoiled child of American psychology". In G. A. Kimble, M. Wertheimer, & C. White (Eds.) Portraits of pioneers in psychology (pp. 13-25). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, E. S. (2004). A history of modern psychology. (pp. 178-179). California: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Townsend, K. (1996). Manhood at Harvard: William James and others. (pp. 32-33). New York: W. W. Norman
- Gijswijt-Hofstra, M. & Porter, R. (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia: From Beard to the First World War, Rodopi, (Amsterdam), 2001; ISBN 90-420-0931-4.
- A family of misunderstood disorders, by Richard N. Fogoros
- An American Treatment for the 'American Nervousness'
- Neuraesthenia revisited: ICD-10 and DSM-III-R psychiatric syndromes in chronic fatigue patients and comparison subjects
neurasthenia in German: Neurasthenie
neurasthenia in Spanish: Neurastenia
neurasthenia in Esperanto: Neŭrastenio
neurasthenia in French: Syndrome de fatigue chronique
neurasthenia in Dutch: Neurasthenie
neurasthenia in Polish: Neurastenia
neurasthenia in Russian: Неврастения
neurasthenia in Chinese: 神经衰弱症