This article is about the state of mind. For other uses, see Hysteria (disambiguation).

Hysteria, in the colloquial use of the term, means ungovernable emotional excess. Generally, modern medical professionals have abandoned using the term "hysteria" to denote a diagnostic category, replacing it with more precisely defined categories, such as somatization disorder. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association officially changed the diagnosis of "hysterical neurosis, conversion type" (the most extreme and effective type) to "conversion disorder".

The word "hysteria" originates from the Greek word for uterus: hystera.[1] Historically, hysteria has referred to a disease exclusive to women, and references as far back as 2000 BC [2] have been made to similar versions of this condition. Hysteria was thought to manifest itself in women with a variety of symptoms, including: anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, insomnia, irritability, nervousness, as well as sexually forward behaviour.[3] These symptoms mimic symptoms of other more definable diseases and create a case for arguing the validity of Hysteria as an actual disease, and it is often implied that it is a term used to describe an indefinable illness.[1] Through to the 20th century, however, Hysteria came to be recognized as a mental, rather than uterine or physical, affliction. We now know it by a variety of mental illnesses and anxieties that both men and women can suffer from, and hysteria is no longer thought of as a real ailment[2]

Through its lack of use as a medical diagnosis the term ‘hysteria’ now has connotations of mass panic, imagined or real. The term hysterical when applied to a singular person can mean that they are emotional or irrationally upset; when applied to a situation, it denotes it as funny.[2]


Hysteria, though it was not referred to by that name until much later, has been considered an affliction or disease as far back as 2000 BC. Even Ancient Egyptian texts refer to depressive syndromes in women. [1] [2]It was thought that the womb or uterus would wander around a woman’s body causing distress, or breathlessness. The theory of a wandering uterus was also held by many in Ancient Greece. Philosophers such as Hippocrates and Plato talk of the uterus as a separate being inside women, "an animal within an animal", which causes the disease of hysteria by wandering around her body causing distress.[1] [3] The standard cure for this condition was exercise and stimulation, sneezing, or massage of the genitals using oils. Smells were also thought to aid in returning the womb to the rightful place in a womans abdomen. It was thought that by placing good smells be near a womans genitals and having the afflicted smell bad odours at the same time the uterus would return to its correct positioning.[2] [4] Galen in 2nd century proposed that the cause of hysteria in women was due to sexual deprivation, ‘to which passionate women were particularly susceptible’. This is when female sexuality starts to become essential to the paradigm of the disease of hysteria. Galen in the 2nd century prescribed similar treatment as recommended by previous Greek philosophers, which was genital stimulation until contractions or ‘paroxyms’ in the patient had been achieved, along with discharge of fluid from the vagina. The idea of retention of fluid in the uterus was related to the idea that retained menstrual blood was a causes of disease in women.[3]

The Middle Ages and the Renaissence

In Medieval times, this idea of the “wandering uterus” persisted, as did the methods of treatment. There was also the idea that there was a build up of humours, or fluid in the uterus that needed to be purged in order to cure the female patient of the disease. This was called ‘suffocation of the mother’ or ‘suffocation of the uterus’ due to the breathlessness that accompanied the application of treatment of genital massage. Self-treatment such as masturbation, was not recommended and also considered taboo. Marriage, and therefore regular sexual intercourse was considered the best long-term treatment option.[3]

Through the middle ages another cause of hysteria could be found: possession. It was thought that demoniacal forces were attracted to those who were prone to melancholy, particularly single women and the elderly. When a patient could not be diagnosed, or cured of a disease, it was thought that the symptoms, of what we now know as mental illness, were actually those of someone possessed by the devil.[2]

In the 16th and 17th centuries, hysteria was still believed to be due to retention of fluids in the uterus, sexual deprivation, or by the tendency of the uterus to wander around the female body causing irritability and suffocation. Marriage, and regular sexual encounters with her husband, was still the most highly recommended course of treatment for a woman suffering from hysteria.[2] It was thought to purge the uterus of any built up fluid, and semen was thought to have healing properties, ‘In this model ejaculation outside the vagina was conducive to uterine disease, since the female genitalia did not receive the health benefits of male emission. Some physicians regarded all contraceptive practices as injurious to women for this reason’. Giovanni Matteo Ferrari da Gradi cited marriage and childbearing as a cure for the disease. If pleasure was obtained from them then hysteria could be cured.[3] If a woman was unmarried, or widowed, manual stimulation by a midwife involving certain oils and scents was recommended to purge the uterus of any fluid retention. Lack of marriage was also thought to be the cause of most melancholy in single women, such as nuns or widows. Studies of the causes and effects of hysteria were continued in the 16th and 17th century by medical professionals such as Ambroise Pare, Thomas Sydenham, and Abraham Zacuto who published their findings furthering medical knowledge of the disease, and informing treatment.[2] [3] Physician Abraham Zacuto writes in his Praxis Medica Admiranda from 1637,

'Because of retention of the sexual fluid, the heart and surrounding areas are enveloped in a morbid and moist exudation: this is especially true of the more lascivious females, inclined to venery, passionate women who are most eager to experience physical pleasure; if she is of this type she cannot ever be relived by any aid except that of her parents who are advised to find her a husband. Having done so the man’s strong and vigorous intercourse alleviated the frenzy.’[3] W omen’s sexuality was still tied up in the disease of hysteria at this time as penetration was thought to be the only means of sexual satisfaction. Women who could not achieve sexual satisfaction through the androcentric model of penetration leading to ejaculation were thought to be prone to suffer from hysteria, as hysteria is still linked with women and femininity at this time.

Industrial Era

Previously held ideas surrounding hysteria, its manifestation, and its treatment in women persisted through to the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also during this time that hysteria starts to be thought of as less of a physical ailment and more of a psychological one.[4] According to Pierre Roussel and Jean-Jaqcues Rousseau femininity is a natural and essential desire for women, ‘Femininity is for both authors an essential nature, with defined functions, and the disease is explained by the non-fulfillment of natural desire.’[2] It is during this era of industrial revolution and the major development of cities and modern life, that this natural tendency is thought to be disrupted causing lethargy or melancholy leading to hysteria.[2] This melancholy or lethargy is retrospectively thought to have been caused and aggravated by the restrictive views on female sexuality at the time, which held masturbation as something unhealthy and unchaste. This led to a surge in female patients for medical practitioners who were looking for the massage cure to their hysteria. The rate of hysteria was so high in the socially restrictive industrial era that women were prone to carrying smelling salts about their person incase they swooned, remiscent of Hippocrates’ theory of smells coercing the uterus back into place. For doctors manual massage treatment was becoming tiring, laborious and time-consuming and they were looking for a way to increase productivity.[3]

Treatment in the Industrial Era

With the advent of industrialization came the mechanization of massage therapy, the steam powered 'Manipulator’ table massager created in the late 1860’s and other devices similar in nature were becoming more available in the mid 19th century.[3] Doctors could now increase their patient load by either investing in a portable vibratory device or having one installed in their office. This new technology also allowed husbands whose wives had been diagnosed with hysteria to partake in the treatments at home. This kind of treatment to induce what is now realized to be an orgasm in women was not considered a sexual act as, with the androcentric model for sexuality, it wasn't considered a true sexual act unless there was penetration and ejaculation. Other mechanized forms of treatment in the mid 19th century included Hydrotherapy with a pelvic douche massager, where cold water was blasted at a high pressure at a woman abdomen. These devices were harder to sell to doctor’s offices because of the expense and the equipment needed to produce the right amount of water pressure, so spas took up the practice offering it not just as muscle therapy but also for treatment of hysteria.[3]

Jean-Martin Charcot’s theories of hysteria being a physical affliction of the mind and not of the body lead to a more scientific and analytical approach to the disease in the 19th century. He dispelled the beliefs that hysteria had anything to do with the supernatural and attempted to define it medically. (devereux 6) Freud furthered this research by claiming that hysteria was not anything physical at all but an emotional, internal affliction that could affect both males and females, which was caused by previous trauma that led to the afflicted being unable to enjoy sex in the normal way[3] [5]. This would later lead to Freuds development of the Oedipus Complex, which connotes femininity as a failure, or lack of masculinity (devereaux 7). Though these earlier studies had shown that men were also prone to suffer from hysteria, including Freud himself[1], over time, the condition was related mainly to issues of femininity as the continued study of hysteria took place only in women. Treatment for hysteria, however, remained the same, motherhood.

While hysteria was reframed with reference to new laws and was new in principle, its recommended treatment in psychoanalysis would remain what Bernheimer observes it had been for centuries: marrying and having babies and in this way regaining the “lost” phallus’[5]

This 19th century definition of femininity has far reaching implications in modern thought as it cements the idea of woman as child bearer, and denotes women who do not conform to the established norms of sexuality and psychoanalysis, as wrong or defective.[5] This definition of femininity as motherhood came at a time when women were fighting for more rights and a larger role in society. Hysteria was often used as a political tool in the media to impede these women’s rights movements and invalidate their arguments and desire for equal rights,

The most vehement negative statements associating feminism with hysteria came during the militant suffrage campaign. “one does not need to be against womens suffrage,” the London Times editorialized in 1908, “to see that some of the more violent partisans of that cause are suffering from hysteria. We use the word not with any scientific precision, but because it is the name most commonly given to a kind of enthusiasm that has degenerated into habitual nervous excitement.”’[1]

Modern Implications and Feminist Theory

In the 1980’s feminists began to reclaim hysteria, using it as a symbol of the systematic oppression of women and reclaiming the term for themselves[1]. The idea stemming from the belief that Hysteria was a kind of pre-feminist rebellion against the oppressive defined social roles placed upon women. Feminist writers such as Catherine Clément and Hélène Cixous write in ''The Newly Born Woman'' from a place of opposition to the theories proposed in psychoanalytical works, pushing against the notion that socially constructed femininities and hysteria are natural to being female.[1] [5] Feminist social historians of both genders argue that hysteria, ‘is caused by women’s oppressive social roles rather than by their bodies or psyches, and they have sought it’s sources in cultural myths of femininity and in male domination.’[1]

Mass hysteria

Main article: Mass hysteria

The term also occurs in the phrase "mass hysteria" to describe mass public near-panic reactions. Hysteria was often associated with events such as the Salem witch trials, or slave revolt.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Gilman, Sander L.; King, Helen; Porter, Roy; Rousseau, G.S.; Showalter, Elaine (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Carta, Mauro Giovanni; Fadda, Bianca; Rappeti, Mariangela; Tasca, Cecilia (Oct 19 2012). "Women and Hysteria In Mental Health". NCBI. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. Retrieved Oct 27 2016. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Maines, Rachel (1999). The technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria’, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. 1 2 Simon, Matt (May 07 2014). "Fantastically Wrong: The Theory of the Wandering Wombs That Drove Women to Madness". Wired. Retrieved Nov 28 2014. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  5. 1 2 3 4 Devereux, Cecily (March 2014). "Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited: The Case f the Second Wave". eJournal. University of Alberta. Retrieved Oct 20 2016. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

Gilman, Sander L., Helen King, Roy Porter, G.S. Rousseau and Elaine Showalter. Hysteria Beyond Freud. Los Angeles University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Devereux, Cecily. Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited: The Case of the Second Wave. University of Alberta/ https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/download/24855/18313 Web. Accessed Oct 28th 2016.

Carta, Mauro Giovanni, Bianca Fadda, Mariangela Rappeti and Cecilia Tasca. Women and Hysteria In Mental Health. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2012; 8: 110–119. Published online 2012 Oct 19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/ Accessed Oct 27th 2016

Further reading

External links

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