What Is Hysteria? The Past and Present

Charcot teaching on hysteria
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Hysteria is a term used to describe emotional excess, but it was also once a common medical diagnosis. In layman's terms, hysteria is often used to describe emotionally-charged behavior that seems excessive and out of control.

When someone responds in a way that seems disproportionately emotional for the situation, they are often described as hysterical. During the Victorian era, the term was often used to refer to a host of symptoms that were generally observed only in women.

While it was once considered a diagnosable condition, hysteria was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. Today, those exhibiting hysterical symptoms might be diagnosed with conditions such as histrionic personality disorder, conversion disorder, or somatic symptom disorder.

Hysteria can be defined as a feature of some conditions that involve people experiencing physical symptoms that have a psychological cause.

Symptoms

Symptoms of hysteria included partial paralysis, hallucinations, and nervousness. Other symptoms often ascribed to hysteria include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Anxiety
  • Fainting
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual forwardness
  • Irritability
  • Agitation

The term is thought to have originated from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who associated these symptoms with the movement of a woman's uterus throughout different locations in the body. Ancient thinkers believed that a woman's uterus could travel freely through different areas of the body, often resulting in different symptoms and ailments based upon its travels.

The term hysteria itself stems from the Greek hystera, which means 'uterus.'

Hysteria may not be a valid psychiatric diagnosis today, but it is a good example of how concepts can emerge, change, and be replaced as we gain a greater understanding of how human beings think and behave.

The History of Hysteria

During the late 1800s, hysteria came to be viewed as a psychological disorder. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot utilized hypnosis to treat women suffering from hysteria.

The mystery of hysteria played a major role in the early development of psychoanalysis. The famed Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had studied with Charcot, so he had first-hand experience observing patients who had been diagnosed with the ailment as well as Charcot's treatment methods.

It was Freud's work with colleague Josef Breuer on the case of Anna O., a young woman experiencing the symptoms of hysteria, that helped lead to the development of psychoanalytic therapy. Anna had found that simply talking about her problems with her therapist had a major impact on her well-being. She dubbed this treatment the "talking cure" and it is still referred to as talk therapy to this day. 

Carl Jung, a colleague of Freud's, treated a young woman named Sabina Spielrein who was also thought to suffer from hysteria. Jung and Freud often discussed Spielrein's case, which had an impact on the theories both men developed. Spielrein herself trained as a psychoanalyst and helped introduce the psychoanalytic approach in Russia before she was murdered by Nazis during World War II.

Hysteria In Modern Psychology

Today, psychology recognizes different types of disorders that were historically known as hysteria, including dissociative disorders and somatic symptom and related disorders.

Dissociative disorders are psychological disorders that involve an interruption (a dissociation) in aspects of consciousness, including identity and memory. These types of disorders include dissociative fugue, dissociative identity disorder, and dissociative amnesia.

In 1980, the American Psychological Association changed their diagnosis of "hysterical neurosis, conversion type" to that of "conversion disorder."

In the recent publication of the DSM-5, symptoms that were once labeled under the broad umbrella of hysteria fit under what is now referred to as somatic symptom disorder.

Somatic symptom disorder involves having a significant focus on physical symptoms such as weakness, pain, or shortness of breath. This preoccupation with symptoms is so pronounced that it results in significant distress and difficulties with normal functioning. The individual may or may not have a medical condition. It is important to note that this does not involve faking an illness; whether the person is sick or not, they believe that they are ill. 

The following are related conditions in the class 'Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders':

  • Illness Anxiety Disorder (formerly hypochondriasis)
  • Conversion Disorder (Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder)
  • Other Specified Somatic Symptom and Related Disorder
  • Psychological Factors Affecting Other Medical Conditions
  • Factitious Disorder
  • Unspecified Somatic Symptom and Related Disorder
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