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Stress Part 3: Back to 1844

By John McManamy


The previous two installments discussed what happens in the brain when stress makes us sitting ducks for mental illness and other behaviors. But long before the introduction of brain imaging and gene arrays, enlightened minds had already made the connection.

In The Taming of the Shrew, that most keen observer of human nature Shakespeare wrote:
“Too much sadness hath congeal’d your blood, And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.”

In Timon of Athens, we read:
“His wits are drowned and lost in his calamities.”

And in Troilus and Cressida, the Bard of Bedlam posits that madness
may be caused “by too much blood, and too little brain.”

It gets better. Not only is Dr. Shakespeare up to speed on cause and effect,  he knows how to treat patients. Thus, this physician’s advice in King Lear:

“Be comforted, good Madam, the great rage
You see is cured in him, and yet it is danger
To make him even o’er the time he has lost;
Desire him to go in, trouble him no more
Till further settling.”

Uncanny, eh? The best is yet to come:

Early last year, I serendipitously came across these Shakespeare snippets in the inaugural July 1844 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry (then known as The American Journal of Insanity). As the Journal observed:

“Now we confess, almost with shame, that although near two centuries and a half have passed since Shakespeare thus wrote; we have very little to add to his method of treating the insane.”

The Journal goes on to say:

“To produce sleep and to quiet the mind by medical and moral treatment, to avoid all unkindness, and when patients begin to convalesce, to guard, as he directs, against everything likely to disturb their minds, and to cause a relapse is now considered the best and nearly the only essential treatment.”

Hold on a sec ... Wasn’t this supposed to be the Dark Ages? Yes and no. Sweeping change was well underway. The establishment of the American Psychiatric Association in 1844 offered hope in the form of enlightened science. Social reformers such as Dorothea Dix offered hope in the form of enlightened Christianity.

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