Psychasthenia: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Patricia Johnson

Patricia is a Clinical Health Psychologist with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has taught Life Span Development and worked with clients of all ages.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of psychasthenia as well as symptoms of this now defunct disorder. Although this label is no longer used for diagnosis, some of its symptoms are included in multiple disorders that are currently in use.

Definition of Psychasthenia

Anxiety is a major feature of psychasthenia

Psychasthenia is now an outdated term for a mental disorder researched and termed by Dr. Pierre Janet, who was a psychologist and philosopher. The term encapsulates multiple symptoms including fear, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, depersonalization, and physical symptoms such as tics, headaches, and fatigue.

Obsessions and Compulsions

Symptoms of psychasthenia include excessive fear or anxiety, which drive obsessions and compulsions. The term obsession is described as a thought process in which a person is so focused on a particular topic that it takes attention away from important tasks. The level of anxiety people experience when having obsessive thoughts may often cause them to feel doubtful about their ability to make healthy decisions. Despite this, however, obsessions often lead a person to also perform actions that temporarily alleviate the obsessions, even if unreasonable. These actions are called compulsions. For instance, if a person is obsessed with making sure he turned off his stove before leaving for work, he may return home to ensure that the stove is in fact turned off. However, if a person is late to work or does not arrive to work because he has checked and rechecked that the knobs on the stove are turned off, obsessions are preventing him from attending to his work responsibilities.


The term psychasthenia also includes phobias, which are intense and irrational fears about a particular situation or object. For instance, some people have a fear of spiders, also called arachnophobia. If the fear is intense enough, people who suffer from this phobia may decide not to leave their homes in warmer weather, when spiders come out more often. Other people are extremely afraid of heights, to the point that they refuse to live or work on floors that they perceive to be too high. For some people, even working on the second floor of a building may induce significant anxiety.

Physical Symptoms

Another symptom of psychasthenia is the experience of physical tics, in which a person has involuntary movements or produces involuntary vocal sounds. For instance, a person may be observed scratching their head repeatedly, even without realizing they are doing it. The scratching can become so severe that it breaks skin and causes infection. Some people who suffer from a tic disorder may have a twitch that seems to appear out of nowhere; however, this can indicate internal emotional stress. Vocal tics are involuntary noises or words that are spoken. Others may spontaneously yell out a particular sound, word, phrase, or sentence repeatedly and without the ability to stop. Some people even yell out profanity and are regretful, although it is not their fault that they suffer from a tic disorder. People thought to have psychasthenia have also reported other physical symptoms, including headaches, digestive and circulatory changes, fatigue, and restlessness.

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