What Is Hysteria?

Hysteria is a woman’s disease, a widespread disease in which women exhibit a variety of symptoms, including paralysis, convulsions, and suffocation. It is the first mental disorder attributed to women, first described in the second millennium BC by Freud and considered a female disease.

American physicians treated the hysteria in the nineteenth century by diagnosing it primarily in white upper-class women who aspired to higher education or did not have children. It was Jean-Martin Charcot who, in France in the 1880s, took seriously the modern scientific sense of all-female hysteria. In this way, hysteria emerged as a tool of patriarchal power and white supremacy in the late nineteenth century to dampen the educational ambitions of white women and dehumanize people of color through elaborate drapes of scientific rigor and professional authority.

Hysteria is a term used to describe emotional excesses, and it is a common medical diagnosis. In 1748, the French physician Joseph Raulin described hysteria as a “steaming disease of affection” (vaporeuse), a French disease that spread in large urban areas through air pollution. For the layman, the term hysteria is used to describe emotionally charged behavior that seems excessive or out of control. When we say “hysterical” today, we mean frantic, and out of control. Anyone who reacts in this way to a seemingly emotional situation can be described as hysterical.

Before hysteria was classified as a mental disorder, it was considered a physical condition and was first described by Jean-Martin Charcot in 1880. In the 1980s, Hysteria was investigated as a mental disorder and identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Associations.

Janet wrote that hysteria is a nervous disease in which there is the dissociation of consciousness characterized by symptoms such as somnambulism, the appearance of double personalities, and involuntary convulsions. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was interested in hysteria, although his views on its causes fluctuated throughout his career. Freud argued that hysteria was a transformation of a psychological problem into a physical symptom with elements of erotic oppression.

In western culture, hysteria largely does not exist as a medical diagnosis and has been replaced by other diagnoses such as conversion and dysfunction. It is preferable to talk about the conversion symptoms which can lead to a variety of psychiatric problems, including personality disorders and depression. Although hysteria and hysterical neuroses have been eliminated as valid medical diagnoses, many of the symptoms associated with these disorders remain in the current edition of Diagnosis Tics, the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Claudius Galen’s theory of hysteria in the 2nd century AD is comparable to that of Hippocrates. Hippocrates emphasized the difference between compulsive movements and epilepsy caused by disorders of the brain and hysteria, which differs from epilepsy due to abnormal movements of the uterus and body. The psychiatrist stated that the function of the body is impaired by hysteria.

Uted Hippocrates was the first to use the term hysteria to describe the condition who used the word hysteron (movement of the uterus, derived from the Sanskrit word for abdominal) to explain the origin of many health symptoms in women. Claudius Galen later said that “hysteria passio hysterica unum nomen is varia tamen and innumera accidentia sub se comprehendit” (“hysterical passion is the name of several or more hysterical passions or symptoms”) and highlighted a multitude of hysterical events.

For many centuries, concerns about the numerous health problems caused by a migratory uterus persisted, and in the 13th century, Western doctors began to believe that hysteria was caused by uterine movement and that the female brain was also involved. One of the best-known examples is the Victorian practice of women carrying “smelling salt,” a practice reminiscent of the idea that a pleasant smell could return a wandering uterus to its natural place. In the nineteenth century, physician Russell Trail estimated that three-quarters of the medical practice was devoted to women’s illnesses, and physicians were grateful that frail women were an economic boon for the medical profession. All in all, most doctors and women were happy that Hysteria from the official Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was removed from 1980.

Charcot published more than 120 case studies of patients diagnosed with hysteria, including Marie Blanche Whittman. But it was the famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who, together with his colleague Josef Breuer, worked on Anna O., a young woman with hysteria-related symptoms, who contributed to the development of psychoanalytic therapy. Anna O. found that talking about her problems with her therapist had a big impact on her well-being. He was able to explain with Sigmund Freud’s research partner Joseph Breuer that the physical manifestations of hysteria were not the result of nerve disorders in the physical body.

Conversion disorder, also known as hysteria, is a type of psychological disorder in which a variety of sensory, motor, and psychological disorders occur. It is classified as psychoneurosis and does not depend on a known organic or structural pathology. The former term hysteria is derived from Greek hysteria, which means uterus, and reflects the ancient idea that hysteria is a female disorder caused by uterine dysfunction.

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