When Was Anxiety Discovered And How Has It Developed Through Time

The history of anxiety, from Plato's thoughts to modern day neuroscientific and genetic research

When Was Anxiety Discovered And How Has It Developed Through Time

Anxiety. It’s a worldwide problem in today's society, one that I have faced and I am sure many of you have too. But when was anxiety discovered? How has it evolved through time? Where are we now compared to then?

Anxiety has basically existed since humans have needed to survive. You may recall learning in an earlier blog post that it acts as ours our survival system in times of danger. However, the anxiety we recognise today has not always been the way the world has understood it.

Plato & The Uterus: Ancient Greece

In the days of the four humors and countless theorizing philosophers, the term 'hysteria' was first coined. This word came from the Greek word for the uterus, probably because the healers of the time believed it could only affect women. They essentially blamed the uterus for causing behaviours that we now refer to as symptoms of panic. In fact, the famous philosopher Plato had a view on this, around the 5th and 4th centuries BC he compared a woman's uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout her body "blocking passages, obstructing breathing and causing disease".

She's A Witch: The Early Renaissance

As we move through time, we reach the early Renaissance period, whereby women who were anxious, or in those days 'hysteric', were accused of being witches. Just consider it: You are an anxious person, you overthink a situation and so you believe you can foresee what is going to happen. In those days this was a premonition, and if proved true, it was used as evidence of the women being witches. This was an era where expressing your anxiety often resulted in very bad circumstances (execution or torture).

Insane Asylums: The Victorians

This trend continued into the Victortian era, whereby women who were 'hysterical' were just considered crazy. It was common for women to live a life largely inside, without a job, which often led to 'unusual' behaviours. If a woman had many panic attacks, her family would take her to an insane asylum where she would be “treated”. However, the treatment was not the talking therapy we see today, it was usually electroshock therapy.

Soldiers On Drugs: The American Civil War

Moving into the identification of more specific anxiety types, we can look to the soldiers of the American Civil War. They were thought to have suffered from 'irritable heart syndrome' due to heart palpitations and shortness of breath. We now call this post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On occasion, they used opium to treat these issues. ‘Irritable heart syndrome’ became 'nerve weakness' in the late 18th century, when they added alcohol and bromide salts to the treatment options.

Note: This is the first time men were recognised as experiencing anxiety symptoms.

Psychiatrists At War: Early 20th Century

It is thought that Russia was the first to appreciate the psychology of these anxiety symptoms. They sent psychiatrists with the soldiers to war in the early 20th century. A group of drugs called barbiturates were used to effectively sedate the men. Just before WWII, there were a mixture of therapies available, from muscle relaxation to electroshock.

Anxiety Disorder & Antidepressants: Late 20th Century

From around the 1950's onwards, modern medicine started to take shape. Therapies such as muscle relaxation continued to be used, but electroshock therapy was reserved for extreme cases. Fear exposure therapy was also introduced around this time, a method where patients are slowly exposed to their fear trigger. After this, people realised that antidepressants could be used to treat anxiety as well as depression. During the 1980's, we created the term 'anxiety disorder' as anxiety was officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association. In the 1990's, research focused on using antidepressants for anxiety due to the interaction with relevant neurotransmitters.


Today, we know as much as we ever have about anxiety. We respect the impact it can have on people's lives and awareness of it is at its highest point. We continue to learn more about anxiety at both the genetic and neuroscientific level, and we have also began exploring ancient practices such as meditation and pranayamas to add to our existing therapeutic options.

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