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A Brief History of Anxiety

A Brief History of Anxiety

The Invention of a Modern Malaise

By Scott Stossel

November/December 2014

In April 1869, a young doctor in New York named George Miller Beard, writing in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, coined a term for what he believed to be a new and distinctively American affliction, one he had seen in 30 of his patients: neurasthenia (from neuro for “nerve” and asthenia for “weakness”). Referring to it sometimes as “nervous exhaustion,” he argued that neurasthenia afflicted primarily ambitious, upwardly mobile members of the urban middle and upper classes—especially “the brain-workers in almost every household of the Northern and Eastern States”—whose nervous systems were overtaxed by a rapidly modernizing American civilization. Beard believed that he himself had suffered from neurasthenia but had overcome it in his early 20s.

Born in a small Connecticut village in 1839, Beard was the son of a Congregational minister and the grandson of a physician. After attending prep school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he went on to Yale, where he began to suffer from the array of nervous symptoms that would afflict him for the next six years and that he would later observe in his patients: ringing in the ears, pains in the side, dyspepsia, nervousness, morbid fears, and “lack of vitality.” By his own account, Beard’s anxious suffering was prompted largely by his uncertainty about what career to pursue—though there is also evidence that he anguished over his lack of religious commitment. (Two of…

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