Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/November 1892/Modern Nervousness and its Cure

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THE signature of our age is a thin-blooded, nervous generation. Only a few decades ago our women were so healthy that they were able to suffer occasional bloodlettings to counteract a supposed excess of blood. Now our girls are pale even in their school age, and the general complaint is that the girls are nervous. Not without reason is the age called a nervous one. While our ancestors, living in natural conditions, hardly knew what nerves were, we complain of excited nerves, even among our children; and adults, especially in the cities, who do not suffer from nervousness are exceptions. There is no doubt that weakness of the nerves, or neurasthenia as the doctors call it, is an acquisition of modern civilization, and at this time, or since attention was called to it by the American George M. Beard, as being as it were a new disease, is playing a formidable part with doctors and laymen.

The term neurasthenia does not so much signify a special affection of the nervous system as it is a fittingly chosen general name for a whole group of disorders the character of which consists in the nervous system failing to act properly, on account of a deficiency of normal nerve-substance. Such a condition, or at least a pronounced tendency to it, is in many cases inherited from parents; and only slightly unfavorable circumstances are required in children thus hereditarily tainted for the development of pronounced neurasthenia. There is, besides the hereditary form, an acquired weakness of the nerves, which may be produced by a considerable variety of causes. The blame for the present condition of our society undoubtedly lies in the haste and pressure of the age, with its battle for existence, driving us into morbidity. The increase and crowded condition of lunatic asylums speaks with admonitory plainness in this matter, and it is time that the right meaning was attached to the momentous phenomenon. Even in the country, where the hygienic conditions are relatively favorable, the evil of nervous weakness is gradually making itself more plain. It is conspicuous in the larger cities, where, with the meeting of great masses of men, the clatter of railroads, and the driving of factories, excitement prevails through day and night, under which the afflicted nerves with great difficulty obtain the rest they need. To this haste and excitement in social life are added the schools with their augmented demands, the trial of examinations, and modern business life; and it is no wonder that only a small fraction of the population escape these attacks on the nervous system.

Our general social conditions, in which the ease that once prevailed is approaching nearer and nearer to extinction, undoubtedly have a great deal to do with the preponderance of nervous diseases.

On the other hand, it can not be too impressively insisted upon that the individual has the means to a certain degree in his own hands of alleviating by a rational mode of life the general harm to which modern man is exposed. But it has to be remarked that the greater number of us, in spite of all the instruction we get, remain in incredibly dense ignorance of matters of personal hygiene. It thus occurs that many allow themselves to be guilty of sins against their own personality by which the health of their nerves is broken to the very marrow. Besides overwork on the one side, there are certain special indulgences, abuse of spirits and other stimulants, too early and excessive tobacco-smoking, and in the majority of cases all together, by which the nervous system is at last disordered and severely injured in its vigor. I was told by an officer that he began to smoke in his twelfth year, and when he marched to France as an ensign he now and then smoked ground coffee when he had no tobacco. It is not to be wondered at that this officer became insane a few weeks after his marriage, and had to be put in an asylum. In other cases there are more or less self-accused disillusions, cares, sorrows, and similar mental conditions, through which the nervous system is weakened and thrown off the track.

Through all these processes waste products are formed in the body, which, acting as self-poisons, cause more or less disturbance in the nervous system. In consequence of the storing up of these self-poisons, patients complain of sleeplessness, nervous pains appearing here and there in diversified alternations, and of being easily fatigued after brief mental or bodily efforts. They are often cross, overcome by trifles, and very frequently complain of nervous disturbances. Nervous dyspepsia is therefore in many cases associated with neurasthenia.

Sadly numerous as such cases of neurasthenia appear at this time, our knowledge has advanced so far that we can, with good heart, give promise of comfort and courage to nervously afflicted persons. For, even in apparently critical cases, a surprisingly favorable result may be reached by the exercise of a little patience combined with a proper and intelligently directed general hygiene. I sincerely advise nervous patients to avoid, as much as possible, all drug remedies. Especially would I warn them against habitual use of benumbing narcotics, however seductively they may operate at first. In my opinion, all these means ultimately do more harm than good.

Of immensely greater value than drugs to nervous patients are the natural factors of healing—air, light, water, quiet, exercise, etc.

The first thing required is, of course, to remove the fundamental causes of the disease. As much rest as possible should be given from without as well as from within; a true religious condition, which a sure faith gives, is therefore of inestimable value to patients. It is self-evident that they must try to be, as much as possible, in the open air, and mountain air is particularly advantageous to them.

Extravagant as they may venture to be in the enjoyment of fresh air, they should be more careful against excessive applications of water. They should always remember that man is not a water animal but an air animal. If in anything, a close adaptation of the treatment by the physician to the individual is particularly necessary in respect to the treatment of nervous patients with water. By the abuse of water in nervous diseases that most sovereign of all remedies has, after a short period of popularity, come into discredit. It is certain that a too indiscriminate application of water is a double poison to nervous patients. It is, on the other side, incontestable that water applications in the right measure, and in a manner adapted to the character of the affection, are excellent. Equally advantageous for them are going barefooted when properly prescribed, and the air-bath. In connection with the water and air cures certain respiratory and muscular exercises are advantages, and may, in certain advanced stages of the disease, be applied passively by massage and similar operations. Among other things, gardening and other occupations in the open air are of great benefit. Unhappily, in the large cities, where the majority of the patients live, there are only a few so fortunately situated as to be able to enjoy such employment to any considerable extent. Those who are able to go clear into the country, and work in the fields and woods in the sweat of their brows, will perhaps, if they are prudent and other conditions are favorable, effect a happy cure of their nervous disorders.

Those who have no garden to till will have to depend on gymnastics as a substitute. Among the simplest and most convenient exercises of this class are those with an instrument called the arm and chest strengthened of a German manufacturer. The apparatus is handy, cheap, durable, and adapted to a variety of exercises. Further, the resistance of the weights can be easily measured and regulated for each patient, while the operation is in other respects the same. With this little apparatus we can safely produce expansion of the chest, regulation of the activity of the heart, and strengthening of the muscles. With it the metabolism and blood formation are materially assisted in a natural way. The little home apparatus is therefore not only of great advantage to nervous patients, but it can also be used profitably as a prophylaxis against tuberculosis; it fortifies the chest and strengthens the whole constitution. Care should be taken to perform the exercise in a well-aired room, and not to carry it to excess.

A suitable diet, specially adapted to each case, is of great importance in all nervous disease. The best general diet is usually one that is a little stimulating and blood-forming, with frequent changes. The usual courses of meat and wine should be considerably diminished, else the nerves will not be able to get the rest they need. Besides albuminous food, the necessary quantity of nutritious salts should be provided in supplies of fruit, green vegetables, and suitable milk and grain dishes. Very much to be recommended in nervous disorders are a well-prepared dish of oatmeal, a strong soup, or other dish of the kind. Such light food will not indeed be relished by many because of its being too contrary to their former habits. In such cases some savory addition to the cereal food may be a desirable expedient.

The old German acorn coffee is of special value in diseases of the nerves. Unmixed it is not very palatable to civilized men, but preparations may be made of it which will be found very useful in cases of nervous dyspepsia.

A suitable mental treatment should go hand in hand with hygienic and dietetic measures if the most favorable results are to be secured. Patience is a particularly valuable medicine to the neurasthenic; for it is evident that a disordered nervous system can be brought into equilibrium only with time and with the requisite endurance. In other respects the patient must try to contribute force to his cure through self-control, through strengthening of his will, and through bringing his mind up to a proper tone. The word of the poet comes into force that "time is man's angel." For the cure of even serious cases may be hoped for by following the hints we have given above; a corresponding right application of Nature's healing factors may bring about speedy cures even in apparently hopeless cases.

For the modern world, as a whole, the essential thing to be done is to return to ways of life more harmonious with Nature and less vexing to body and soul. The way to do this is clearly pointed out in the teachings of modern hygiene. May society enter upon this way betimes, for its own good and the salvation of the future!—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from Ueber Land und Meer.

"Theories," said Prof. William Rutherford, at the British Association, "are but the leaves of the tree of science—they bud and expand, and in time they fade and fall, but they enable the tree to breathe and live."