Stress: not just a modern phenomenon | University of Oxford

Stress: not just a modern phenomenon

An Oxford-based project will explore the Victorians' attitude to stress and overwork – 19th-century problems that anticipated the preoccupations of our own era.

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, of Oxford University's English Faculty and St Anne's College, has been awarded a grant of €2.3 million from the European Research Council to carry out the research.

The project will look at the medical, literary and cultural responses to stress in the Victorian period.

Professor Shuttleworth said: 'In our current "Information Age" we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks.

'The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the 19th century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the "velocity of thought and action" now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain, forced to process in a month more information "than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime".

'This project explores the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated in the 19th century with the problems of modernity, as expressed in the literature, science and medicine of the period, tracking the circulation of ideas across these diverse areas.' 

By looking at the science and great novels of the Victorian period, among other sources, the project will examine 'diseases from worry and mental strain' experienced in the professions, as well as 'lifestyle' diseases such as the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, and diseases from environmental pollution.

Topics covered will include finance and speculation, alcohol and drug addiction among the middle classes, travel for health, pressure in the classroom, and the development of phobias and nervous disorders. 

Professor Shuttleworth was also recently awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to investigate public participation in science in the 19th and 21st centuries.