Feeling the strain? New book looks at the cultural history of stress in Britain

Are we more stressed now than our ancestors were? A new book by a Sussex historian could hold the answer.

Dr Jill Kirby ’s book Feeling the strain: a cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain , explores the popular discourse of nerves and stress over the last hundred years.

Starting from the 1920s, Dr Kirby provides a historical account of how ordinary Britons understood, explained and coped with the pressures and strains of daily life.

Dr Kirby, a Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex, said: “There’s been a lot of academic studies looking at stress, but not much really investigated the cultural history of it.

“I wanted to look at the way stress was understood and spoken about, where it may have existed in daily life and how that has changed over the years.”

The book, published by Manchester University Press, notes the linguistic shift in the 1970s from people talking about nerves and nervous breakdown to describing the same feelings as stress.

In the post-war period, leaving aside wartime trauma, Dr Kirby points out how stress was something initially linked with the elite as it was associated with the overworked brains of businessmen.

Driven partly by the interests of the military and industry, stress began to be spoken about more and more in public discourse and, thanks to changing socio-economic contexts in the 1980s and 1990s, by the end of the century it had become a ubiquitous condition of everyday life.

Dr Kirby said: “It’s been really interesting delving into the various reasons as to why people might have felt stressed and looking at how organisations reacted to this.

“While many companies have long been interested in identifying stressed workers, it is only towards the end of the twentieth century that they started to offer healthcare packages and try to help manage the stress of their workforce, although this has almost always focused on the worker’s weakness, rather than any institutional or systemic causes of their stress.

“But while work was, and still is, a primary cause of stress for many, there are a number of other contributing factors. It has been fascinating to look at the gendered nature of stress - thinking about how women and families used to take on the stress of workers returning home after a long day, as well as managing their own domestically-located stress.

“With our modern lives, it’s often said that we’re now more stressed than ever before. While that could be understandable, with modern technology making us unable to switch off, I think it’s probably more complex than that.

“My research showed that it became more acceptable to talk about stress over time, and to understand our lives within a framework of stress, and so it could be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy where, because we’re talking about this feeling more, we think we’re more stressed than we are.

“It’s also important to remember that the idea of stress is subjective too - so one person’s stress might not be another’s.”

To find out more about Feeling the strain: a cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain, visit the Manchester University Press website .

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 18 September 2019

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