Troubled by life: the experience of stress in twentieth-century Britain

Kirby, Fiona Jillian (2014) Troubled by life: the experience of stress in twentieth-century Britain. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Abstract

In this thesis I explore how people conceptualised, explained and managed their
experiences of everyday stress before the concept became ubiquitous. In doing so, I
reveal some of the factors which contributed to that ultimate ubiquity.

The existing historiography of stress comes mostly from a medical perspective and
deals largely with post-traumatic stress. I address these limitations by specifically
focusing on the everyday stress more commonly experienced by the wider population
and by doing so from a more popular perspective. I focus on changes to everyday life
at work and at home, which had a significant impact on the popularisation of stress, in
the period from the First World War to the 1980s.

Drawing on a range of sources including self-help books, diaries, oral history interviews
and popular culture, I foreground continuities in the approach to treating stress and
changes in ideas about causation. My analysis reveals a vocabulary of nerves and
nervous disorders as precursors to stress, but also illustrates the mutability of the
nerves/stress concept and how its very imprecision gave it utility. An examination of
contemporary medical, sociological and governmental research demonstrates how the
increasing problematisation of everyday life contributed to a growing discourse of
stress. This was reflected in popular culture which revealed both the workplace and
home to be potential locations of stress.

I argue that this arose due to changes to these domains resulting from increased
affluence, evolving gender roles and changes to people’s expectations of life in the
second half of the century. At its heart my thesis argues that despite material
improvements in both work and home life during the period, societal changes and a
growing popular discourse of stress made it far more likely that by the late twentieth
century people would interpret their everyday woes as stress.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of History, Art History and Philosophy > History
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA History of Great Britain > DA020 England > DA129 By period > DA300 Modern, 1485- > DA566 20th century
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 20 Oct 2014 14:01
Last Modified: 11 Oct 2017 08:17
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/50486

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