Jill Kirby
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Nerves and the nervous
Self-help books in the early decades of the twentieth century
in Feeling the strain
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This chapter lays the groundwork for succeeding chapters in establishing popular understandings of causation and treatment and revealing the considerable flexibility inherent within the overall concept of ‘nerves’. It does this by examining self-help literature from the 1900s to mid-1930s, uncovering contemporary understanding of issues affecting mental well-being, and examining proposed causes, symptoms and remedies. These reveal key themes underpinning popular conceptualisations of stress during the subsequent century. The chapter argues that self-help books represented the opening up of a discourse about the inner self and the sensitive area of mental health and illustrates the increasing reflexivity required to explain everyday life in the twentieth century. Also proposed is the way that such literature both reflected and responded to contemporary social problems, illuminating popular notions of health and well-being, stoicism and personal responsibility.

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Feeling the strain

A cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain


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