George Miller Beard was a turn-of-the-century neurologist who defined neurasthenia as a depletion of “nerve force,” or nervous energy, brought on the trials of living in the modern era. Specifically, Beard named five forces that, together, heralded an advanced civilization and could therefore introduce neurasthenia: “Steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women.” Too much engagement with any one of the five, he said, could exhaust a person’s reserves and bring about a collapse. You can see here how broad national trends were taking their toll on individual minds and bodies.
Treatment for neurasthenia varied according to gender. Women were assigned to total bedrest, often for a month or more. They weren’t allowed any books, paper to write on, or visitors, and were often spoon-fed a diet of milk by a nurse so as to return them to their natural state of dependency. Neurasthenic men, on the other hand—Teddy Roosevelt and Henry James come to mind—were sent into the great outdoors to replenish their nerve force. James got a prescription to hike in the Alps; Roosevelt was sent to the Dakotas for rough-riding.
Nowadays, men and women alike are getting other prescriptions. “I have woken up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. almost every night for the past three weeks,” an attorney from Oakland told me. “I’ve started taking anti-anxiety meds before I went to sleep every night. I'm 41, I've been through a bunch of presidential elections at this point, and none of them have made me feel like this.”
Malachi lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his disability has made it difficult for him to maintain a job. (He asked that we withhold his last name for this reason.) He says his anxiety is “dramatically worse” since the election started. “My consumption of meds is through the roof.”
Madison, a trans woman living in San Francisco, isn’t enthused about Hillary Clinton but is happy to vote for her over Donald Trump. She is currently in the process of transitioning (and asked to withhold her last name for this reason), but says she fears for her safety under a Trump presidency. “The brazenness that he is imparting into people has definitely caused me to slow down my transition and take everything so much more carefully. Basically, I have to hide.”
The pull of election news has started to divide some people’s attention during work, too. “My productivity has been dramatically curtailed by my increasing perusal of Twitter, various news services, and YouTube,” says David Hackett, a San Francisco-based designer. “I try to not let it affect me, but I know that the cumulative, additive effect is that it does affect me.” Some of the people I spoke with have deleted apps like Twitter and Facebook from their phones, trying to bow out of contentious political conversations as much as possible, but many others said they were checking the news and social media almost compulsively. “With all the controversy surrounding both candidates, it's all the more addicting,” says Bill Lesniak, who works at a commercial printshop in the Chicago area. “You just want to know how it's all going to flesh itself out. Really, it's like the Jersey Shore with less alcohol.”