University of Sussex
Kirby,_Fiona_Jillian.pdf (1.3 MB)

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

Download (1.3 MB)
posted on 2023-06-08, 18:36 authored by Jill KirbyJill Kirby
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.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • History Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Theses)


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager