University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The Economics of Nervous Energy

Left Image: “Portrait of a Lady” by George Richmond, 1859. University of Virginia Fralin Museum of Art, Gift of the Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation.
Right Image: “Untitled (gentleman in suit)” by Ralph Gibson, 1973. University of Virginia Fralin Museum of Art.

Each person’s nervous energy was considered finite. Like a rechargeable battery, it could be depleted by a stressful environment and harmful habits or could be replenished by rest and healthful habits.


The more sensitive and cultured a person was, the more at risk he or she was for nervous exhaustion or neurasthenia. ‘Brain work’ was especially draining. Further, women were considered constitutionally weaker than men because their reproductive systems placed special strains on their bodies, and so they were constantly at risk of collapse. Men spent more of their time in the highly stressful worlds of business and government, did mainly ‘brain work,’ and therefore put their nerves at great risk.

The elite were especially in danger because their heavy leadership responsibilities required them to expend great mental energy as well as physical effort. It was the combination of mental and physical demands that produced nervous exhaustion. Although other members of society had heavy physical demands, they seldom had to undertake heavy ‘brain work’ at the same time.

Irresponsible people were considered to be in even more danger, regardless of their work – those who drank excessively or took drugs, gambled, had poor diets, did not get healthful exercise, did not get enough rest, did not spend quiet time in cultural pursuits, and who engaged in too much sexual activity. Their health degenerated rapidly, leading to complete debilitation and even insanity.


Nervous energy was depleted by the combination of mental and physical effort, an irresponsible lifestyle, or any immoderate activities (even those usually harmless).

Education and its mental effort posed a risk, which is why university undergraduates were prone to neurasthenia. Advanced education for women put them at special risk, according to some physicians, because they were already frailer than men.


Nervous energy was bolstered by a proper balance in living habits. Proper exercise and a healthful diet, moderation in social activities, the pursuit of culture (literature, art) and spiritual insight, and avoidance of overindulgence in everything that sapped energy (alcohol, sex, gambling, for example) could maintain and replenish nervous energy.

S. Weir Mitchell, M.D., became world famous for his ‘rest cure‘ for neurasthenia. The rest cure required patients to withdraw from their normal social and domestic responsibilities to restore their health.

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