PAST IS PROLOGUE

Reflections From Disneyland: A History of Stress and Anxiety

Human beings go to great lengths to exit mental discomfort

Emily Willingham
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readJun 14, 2022
The famous Disney castle with a crowd of people in the foreground.
Photo by Colton Jones on Unsplash

On April 23, 1842, a certain Mr. S., gentleman farmer aged 50, visited the local medical man with complaints of a “great mental anxiety” for a few weeks because of an increased burden of business duties. Although the record is not specific, the breaking point came when Mr. S. witnessed “some peculiar circumstances” connected with the “indisposition” of a neighbor. The event triggered a powerful emotional response, after which Mr. S. still had to make a business trip to London. This experience seems to have left him overwhelmed.

The medical man prescribed a “blue pill” and a purgative drink, which having failed to produce improvement, he prescribed a second time. Mr. S., dissatisfied with the sole services of the local medical man and having had an episode of the cold sweats at a railway station, turned to William England, M.D., who wrote up the case for a medical journal, entitling it, “Case of Fever, caused by Mental Anxiety.” Dr. England described his patient as showing “great mental anxiety,” manifested in a goggle-eyed, fixed stare, headache, a “tremulous” tongue, gas, lack of appetite, thirst, and poor sleep. The patient was advised to suspend business, and then he was dosed “mercurial and saline cathartics” to get his bowels to empty.

That was just the beginning.

Although Mr. S. miraculously felt somewhat better after all of this, he had a bit of a relapse, which necessitated the application of 16 leeches to his temples. He endured various permutations of these therapies over a roller coaster few weeks of strength gained and lost, pulse fluctuations, bleeding from his bowels starting from the ninth day of “treatment,” and the introduction of opium, oil of turpentine, and other purgatives into the armamentarium. Ultimately, Mr. S., despite having originally had a robust physical constitution, died on May 24, just over one calendar month from the day of his fateful visit to the local medical man.

What finally took Mr. S. away is impossible to know. Whether his original symptoms were truly anxiety or something of more cardiovascular or neurological origin is also a…

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Emily Willingham
Human Parts

Journalist, author, Texan, biologist. I write All About Us (we=us), All About Adolescence (our longest growth stage), & All About Aging (we’re all doing it).