Burnout referred to as neurasthenia 100 years ago

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Burnout occurred 100 years ago

In connection with burnout there is always talk of a so-called fashion diagnosis. But the phenomenon is not that modern. Hundreds of years ago, working people in particular suffered from severe stress that annoyed them. At that time the clinical picture was called neurasthenia.

From pocket watch to smartphone Even 100 years ago, growing cities, increasing traffic and more technology in everyday life were recognized as factors for stress. One reason for inner turmoil at the time was the pocket watch, which some people kept looking at, so as not to be late. Nowadays, the constant look at the smartphone is identified as a threat to the health of the soul. The phenomenon called burnout today was called neurasthenia 100 years ago. The successful author Florian Illies wrote in his bestseller "1913" about the Austrian author Robert Musil (1880-1942): "Mockers sang:" Never rest and never hurry, otherwise neurasthenia hurts. "The writer went to a neurologist in 1913, there he suffered from the "stupidity" of his work as a librarian at the Vienna University of Technology.

Burnout at the time was called neurasthenia Musil told the doctor that he suffered from heart palpitations with a racing pulse, twitching when falling asleep and a digestive disorder associated with depression, physical and psychological fatigue. As Illies writes in his book, this would be called burnout today, but at that time the diagnosis was: neurasthenia. From the end of the 19th century, this clinical picture was a widespread phenomenon and as early as 1900 it was perceived as an epidemic in Central Europe to become one of the most common diagnoses in the years before 1914.

Diagnoses are imports from the USA The Bielefeld historian Joachim Radkau, who is an expert in mentality, medical and environmental history, explained: "Between the rapid growth of complaints about 'burnout' in the past two decades and the 'neurasthenia'. Wave a century earlier there are striking analogies. ”Both diagnoses are imports from the United States and in both cases they are particularly common in German culture. The term "neurasthenia" was made known by the New York neurologist George M. Beard from 1880. "This suffering was often associated with the long-distance effects of the electrical revolution of the time, similar to today's burnout with the digital revolution, the overstimulation of the senses through the Internet and constant accessibility via mobile phone," said Radkau.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was regarded as the top neurasthenic of the empire. As the historian further reported, the "rushing and chasing" of modern economic life was considered a common cause in contemporary literature. But patient records at the time would also indicate that sexual frustration was at least as much involved. Sigmund Freud's fixation on the sexual origins of the neuroses should only be understood against this background. The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) is another prominent example. His correspondence was teeming with nerve complaints. In the years before 1914, the “nerve discourse” became increasingly political. “The accusation of nerve weakness flew back and forth, especially among those politicians who themselves were suspected of being nervous. Wilhelm II was considered to be the top neurasthenic of the realm by insiders, ”said Radkau. The historian believes that the German emperor gave in to the warmongers in the July crisis of 1914, explained that he was trying not to feed the suspected nerve weakness.

Dangerous medicalization of politics And in 2014, a hundred years later, Radkau sees a parallel: “Even today the nervous palaver threatens to jump over to politics; one reads that a "nerve war" is waged between Ukraine and the EU between Russia, as if the EU had to prove its nerve power through toughness towards Moscow. "However, such a" medicalization of politics "is dangerous" and one runs sober weighing one's own interests, ”says the historian. He added: "Chancellor Angela Merkel can be credited with the fact that, in contrast to the last German emperor, she does not have to guard against an insinuation: against that of nervousness."

Problematic diagnosis A problem that probably already posed back then was the diagnosis. Nowadays burnout is used very imprecisely for various symptoms. These included exhaustion, tiredness, insomnia and a strong desire to withdraw. However, these symptoms could also be signs of depression. It is therefore often difficult to diagnose whether there is actually a burnout. According to estimates, around a quarter to a third of Germans say they feel burnt out. However, it was difficult to give specific numbers of those actually affected by burnout due to the lack of clarity in the demarcation from other mental illnesses. (sb)

Image: Jorma Bork / pixelio.de

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