What is Nervous Illness?
It will be appreciated that there are different grades of nervous
suffering. Countless people have bad nerves and
many of them, although distressed, continue at their work and
cannot be said to suffer from nervous breakdown. Indeed, while
they readily admit to having bad nerves, they would
indignantly refute any suggestion of breakdown. And yet a nervous
breakdown is no more than an intensification of their symptoms.
Although this book is concerned mainly with the development
and treatment of nervous breakdown, almost every symptom complained
of by people with bad nerves will be found here,
and such people will recognise themselves again and again in
the patients with breakdown described in the following chapters.
The symptoms are the same, but it is their severity that varies.
Where do bad nerves end and where does nervous
breakdown begin? By nervous breakdown we mean a state in which
a persons nervous symptoms are so intense
that he copes inadequately with his daily work or does not cope
at all. Doctors are asked if people really break,
and if so, how? We are also asked how a nervous breakdown begins
Many people are tricked into breakdown. A sudden or prolonged
state of stress may sensitise adrenaline-releasing nerves to
produce the symptoms of stress in an exaggerated, alarming way.
This state of sensitisation is well known to doctors, but so
little known to people generally that, when first experienced,
it may bewilder and dupe its victim into becoming afraid of
it. If asked to pinpoint the beginning of a nervous breakdown,
I would say that it is at the moment when a sensitised person
becomes afraid of the sensations produced by severe stress and
so places himself in a cycle of fear-adrenaline-fear. In response
to his fear, more adrenaline is released and his already sensitised
body is thus stimulated to produce even more and more intense
sensations, which inspire more fear. This is the fear-adrenaline-fear
Most breakdowns are of two main types. One is relatively straightforward
and its victim is mainly concerned with the distressing sensations
brought by his sensitised nerves. In such people, nerves may
be suddenly sensitised by the stress of some shock, such as
an exhausting surgical operation, a severe haemorrhage, an accident,
a difficult confinement; or, sensitisation may come more gradually
following a debilitating illness, anaemia, or too strenuous
dieting. This person is often happy in his domestic life and
work; indeed, he may have no great problem other than his inability,
because of his breakdown, to cope with his normal responsibilities.
The second type of breakdown is begun by some overwhelming
problem, conflict, sorrow, guilt or disgrace. The stress of
prolonged, fearful introspection gradually sensitises nerves
to react more and more intensely to the anxious introspection,
until bewilderment and fear of the strange feelings sensitisation
brings, even of the strange thoughts it may bring, become as
much part of the suffering as the original problem, conflict,
sorrow, guilt or disgrace. Indeed, it may eventually be the
This book looks at how to prevent, cope and deal with both
types of breakdown.