Historical essay
Do This One Thing: Curing Symptoms not the Disorder

Do This One Thing: Curing Symptoms not the Disorder

This spring, as I was preparing for my wedding, recovering from what was my fourth illness of the year, and attempting to finish the first chapter of my dissertation, my fiancé told me that he got an amazing job offer in Chicago and — surprise! — we had to decide immediately whether to stay in Texas (where my family and friends live) or to leap into the great unknown. His current job had made increasing demands on his time while his pay remained stagnant. While I was not the one switching jobs, the move required a great deal of time and energy from both of us.

We ultimately decided to take the leap, but not before my anxiety got the best of me. If you have had a panic attack, you might recognize the feeling. As we sat at the kitchen table listing the items needed to prepare for such a move, my chest began to tighten and an invisible weight pressed into me. My pulse raced, my breathing became increasingly quick and shallow, and I felt as though I might explode. I could not think, I could not process. I could only wait for it to pass.

The next day, the advertisements online were creepily prescient in what they believed would cure my anxiety if I purchased a particular remedy. Over that following week, I probably saw fifty different websites that could cure my anxiety and stress. Admittedly, I read quite a few of them. I am not immune to the temptation to find that one secret my physician doesn’t want me to know to make me feel better again in moments of high stress. For example, one article I found offered the simple answer of changing my diet. An article from Health listed 13 ways that I could “Beat Stress in 15 Minutes or Less!” Call me jaded, but I was a bit skeptical that it would only take 15 minutes. (Or less!)

Someone is holding a pencil's eraser over the word "stress" which has been slightly erased
“Eradicate stress for better mental health.” (Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

Realistic or not, these ads offer solutions American workers desperately need. My fiancé is not alone in the American workforce in finding himself undercompensated for an increasing workload. While employment productivity has increased by 21.6% in the past 14 years, wages have only risen 1.8%. Negative work conditions are leading many Americans to seek better positions elsewhere, whether it involves displacing their families or not.

Articles promising cures to workplace woes such as burnout and stress do not challenge the system of ever-increasing workloads that is placing the stress upon our shoulders. They simply tell us to be better consumers. The burden of consuming and purchasing a cure remains squarely on the people suffering the most. All of these stress-fighting websites offer seemingly simple solutions, and yet we still fight daily to keep our heads above water. If it is really so simple, what are we doing wrong? Are we simply not following directions? Are we just not purchasing the “correct” remedy?

The stress-fighting industry rakes in dizzying amounts of money each year. Americans spent over 10 billion dollars in 2012 on the well-known stress-relieving practice/exercise of yoga alone. David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” published in 2001 had sold 1.6 million copies by 2014. The promise of reducing stress is incredibly profitable.

Book jacket of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. (©David Allen/Amazon)

Although the internet makes access to these solutions easier than ever before, the selling of stress-relief is not new. Newspapers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century promised cures for that age’s version of too much stress: nervous disorders. Promises of complete cure were common in advertisements for patent drugs peddled throughout the United States. Just as you might see an advertisement online today with the click-bait that says, “Don’t eat this one thing and your stress (or belly fat) will go away,” patent marketers (often backed by physician recommendations) wanted to grab people’s attention as quickly as possible and then give detailed lists of all of the ailments that they could cure with one simple remedy.

In a 1910 lecture, a Professor W. Earl Flynn claimed that the “salvation” for all types of nervous disorders was cutting back the amount of food individuals ate — especially in the morning. He called his solution the “No Breakfast Plan.” Flynn claimed that nervous disorders were caused by “the strenuous life of the American people….” He continued to lament the tragic state of the country by saying,

[gblockquote]Our nation is money-mad. Our business men go the pace, and use up their vital energy and the keenness of competition is so great, the nervous strain so enormous, the demands for physical exercise so diminished, that practically the whole strain falls on the nervous system…[/gblockquote]

He went on to describe a man who died from the strain of a nervous disorder in his forties.1 No breakfast became more and more appealing as the lecture went on. It might have been uncomfortable, but Flynn reassured the audience that their inability to perform efficiently at work would no longer be a problem if they would only follow his one directive.

The concern for productivity and peace of mind came in pill form as well. Doctors touted patent medicines with revolutionary cures and reminded sufferers that if they just consumed the medicine, they could find relief. The advertisement for Dr. Miles’ Restorative Nervine insisted that any affections of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves could be cured with their medicine. One man shared his testimony of being incapacitated for work because he could not sleep and became obsessively anxious. He took the pills and was able to continue his job as “president and manager of the Troy National Bank, with a large business.” Again, he did not say anything or change anything about a root cause of his problem. Instead he proved his strength as a powerful man by his smart consumerism and his return to the workforce as soon as he was able.2

Advertisement in The Canadian Druggist (1889) (Wikimedia Commons)

In another nervous disorder cure called “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets,” the advertisement directed its attention to “hard working men and women.” The article blamed business failures on an individual’s sickness saying:

[gblockquote]What is more dishonorable than unnecessary failure? Thousands of men make failures of life and die premature deaths, leaving wives and children unprovided for, because of their reckless neglect of health. No man can do good work who suffers from biliousness, digestive and nervous disorders.[/gblockquote]

The advertisement claimed a 98% cure rate with promises of making “rich, red, pure blood and firm, healthy flesh” and toning of “worn-out nerves.”3 In this article, the writer actually challenges the very honor of the people suffering from nervous disorders in an attempt to gain their patronage. Indeed, these sick men were “failures of life” because they had nervous disorders.

While both the Flynn lecture and the two advertisements all admitted that work conditions were problematic and caused the nervous disorders, none of them advocated for a change in the system itself. Again, the onus of alleviating or surviving the stressful culture or job fell on the worker, who was expected to consume the “correct” item or listen to the “correct” advice. The burden fell upon the people who were feeling the most pain.

In the nineteenth century, there was a shift to emphasize the power of the individual as a changeable being who could adapt if they just made wiser decisions. With work and effort, a body could be transformed into whatever that individual desired. This shift toward individualization was closely linked to the rise in consumerism.4 The question was not about whether or not the system was working for the people but whether individuals were making the most of their situations through the proper consumption of goods offered. Not surprisingly, dieting also became much more common during the end of the nineteenth century. Control of the body became a way for individuals to prove their abilities to overcome the relatively new challenges in increasingly stressful workplaces.5

Looking at these advertisements reveals just how little solutions to stress have changed. The pressure still remains on the individual to solve problems by consuming the “best” product or solution. I have bought into this philosophy for years, regularly scouring the internet for ways to feel better and to reduce my day-to-day anxiety. Yes, it is healthy to exercise, to eat foods that are good for you, and to take medications as needed, but these individual solutions do not address the true sources of anxiety and stress that we have become accustomed to. Our solution should not simply be an individual one. We should be tackling workplaces that sacrifice people in the name of profit. We should be looking to improve or interrupt this exhausting system instead of blaming the people who suffer within it.


  1. “Nerves in Order and Nerves Out of Order,” The Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 12 1910, 4. Return to text.
  2. “Dr. Miles’ Restorative Nervine,” The Indianapolis Star, April 5, 1904, 3. Return to text.
  3. “Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery,” Winfield Daily Courier, October 23, 1897, 4. Return to text.
  4. Mike Featherstone, “The Body in Consumer Culture,” The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, edited by Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan Turner (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications), 176 – 177. Return to text.
  5. Katharina Vester, “Regime Change: Gender, Class, and the Invention of Dieting in Post-Bellum America,” Journal of Social History 44, no. 1 (Fall 2010), 44. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets. Apparently they’re good for your liver. (Courtesy Joseph Novak/Flickr)

Courtney Lacy has a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri and is currently a PhD Candidate at Southern Methodist University, focusing on nineteenth-century American religious history and mental health. She is working on her dissertation about Midwestern women institutionalized in the nineteenth-century for religious insanity.

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