What is Hysteria?

Hysteria is a very general and outdated reference to any number of mental conditions or disorders that vary from normal behavior.

The term at one time had a physical and mental reference which became unpopular as medical science and psychology progressed after the turn of the century. Today, the term may loosely describe an excessively excited condition, which can have any number of causes.

Overview of hysteria

The term hysteria originated from ancient Greek medicine to mean a state of breathing dysfunction accompanied by heat. The term used in ancient times was hysterical suffocation, which stems from the word hysteria, or uterus. This condition, as indicated by its feminine terminology, was thought to only be suffered by females.

The most notable symptoms normally described include nervous excitement, which is what most people today associate with the term hysteria. As science progressed and individual conditions warranted further study and diagnosis, the term became obsolete. We now understand today that all the conditions which were labeled hysteria had their own particular causes and fell into several other, more understood groups, which had specific and effective treatments rather than a broad definition of a condition which only affected women.

Symptoms of Hysteria

Over the course of history, hysteria has encompassed a variety of symptoms. In ancient times, the condition related to symptoms thought to stem from the uterus. Some of the symptoms associated with hysteria historically included irritability, anxiety, sexual promiscuity, insomnia, nervousness, and even a shortness of breath. It was a very broad spectrum term reserved for the use of conditions associated with women.

After the 20th century, hysteria described or was meant to imply a mental illness or other types of mental disturbance.In a more modern context, hysteria was defined as uncontrollable excitement and anxiety. People who received the diagnosis of hysteria exhibited signs associated with anxiety disorders and other more serious psychological disorders, which now have a specified definition and treatment. Some of the observed behavior included seizures and bouts of unconsciousness, which had no other explanation at the time.

Later in the history of medicine and psychology, the term describes individuals with extreme anxiety and bouts of excitable confusion. Most of the cases which fell under this term are currently known as conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorder, and anxiety disorder. These conditions each have their own set of hallmark symptoms and have specified markets, which doctors use to make a diagnosis. The treatment of these conditions will vary greatly today and are not all treated with the same regard. Most of the cases which previously fell under the broad diagnosis of hysteria now require extensive psychological treatment, including therapy and medication.

Hysteria Causes

In ancient Greek times, the thinking regarding hysteria was that it stemmed from the uterus and issues related to the physical health of the woman. Modern psychologists determined that the cause of the conditions most likely were of a psychological nature. In a sexual context, the condition was later thought to stem from a trauma which left the woman with a lack of desire for sex.

Psychologists and medical doctors tended to disagree as to the causes of hysteria. It was later hypothesized by Sigmund Freud that hysteria was actually a physiological condition which was caused by sexual trauma. He also stated that both men and women could suffer from the afflictions associated with the disorder. He proposed a combination of therapy and drugs to help the person regain their normal mental state. Although he thought both sexes could suffer from the disorder, he studied mostly women and thought the issue was rare in men.

The causes of hysteria in the traditional sense could relate to any number of conditions poorly understood at the time as a result of a lack of medical understanding and progress in the field of psychology. At one time the condition referred to the uterus and reportedly caused women to act in irrational or dysfunctional states. The reference may have implicated a lack of sexual desire, or an overactive sexual desire in the Industrial Era. The cause was unknown until some of the world’s most prolific psychologists studied the condition extensively. They determined the causes were broad and in some cases, caused by trauma or a physiological condition which causes a lack of desire, which was frowned upon by men during those times.

Treatments for Hysteria

Early treatments for hysteria varied depending on the opinions of the doctor, and the region in which the patient was receiving treatment. Some medical professionals and healers would use herbs as a treatment for excitement and anxiety which was labeled as hysteria.

At the turn of the century and in the industrialized era, treatment consisted of vibratory therapy, which was actually stimulating a female to have an orgasm in the hopes of calming any issues related to the uterus and inducing a more relaxed state. Doctors would perform treatments in their offices at that time, and it wasn’t considered sexual in nature because there was no penetration occurring during the sessions. Another common type of treatment used in the industrial era included high-pressure water injected into the vagina to massage the uterus. There were many similar types of treatment which were considered highly beneficial at the time. Later in the mores advanced times, the condition required a medical professional to see the patient on a regular basis for talk therapy.

The term today refers to anyone who exhibits extreme bouts of fear and anxiety and falls under the term of hysterical neurosis and occurs in conjunction with other psychological conditions. The excitability and anxiety require treatment in the immediate sense, then the root of the problem is uncovered and treated once the patient regains a normal state of functioning. The behavior normally attributes to chemical imbalances in the patient, which requires some type of prescription medications to help the person function normally once again. Doctors will set up a regular course of treatment, which involves extended therapy sessions over the long term.

Although hysteria is now referred to as hysterical neurosis, and no longer refers to a broad range of physiological and psychological conditions, it is still referred to in casual conversation to describe an extreme psychological reaction. The actual medical term of hysterical neurosis describes a more narrow field of psychological conditions which normally accompany other mental illnesses. The outlook for people suffering from hysterical neurosis episodes is generally good if they are following the outlined course of treatment for their specific condition, and continue to seek help to gain the maximum benefit. If the person ignores the advice of the medical professionals, or they decide to self-medicate, they can expect to see continued episodes of hysterical neurosis. The episodes can continue to repeat and cause a deterioration of the individual in question.

It is important that people with extreme anxiety see their professional regularly and participate in the outline treatments in order to regain normal function in both their everyday and professional lives. On an emergency basis, a patient may require a sedative or tranquilizer in the event they experience these extreme feelings with no recourse. These types of medications get the patient through the episode with less reaction and create an opportunity to calm down. If necessary, the patient may seek a more intensive treatment on an inpatient basis in order to get the situation under control with close observation and a more effective medication regimen.

Today we know extreme anxiety has many courses of treatment rather than simple sedation. In the past, however, there were limited treatments which were effective, so sedation seemed to be the most logical course of action to induce a sense of calm in the patient. The sedation therapy could also create a substance abuse problem in individuals, which was another condition that compounded the issue.

If a person seems hysterical in modern times, it is common practice to determine the cause of the distress to the patient. If the person is having psychological issues, they may receive sedation or even require observation until more information can be gathered regarding their condition. In some instances, the patient can become recommended for admission to an inpatient clinic for diagnosis and observation.

The person receives an evaluation and therapy while being seen on an inpatient basis. If medication becomes necessary, the clinic will administer the drugs in the facility to observe how the person reacts to the treatment. If the patient responds positively and seems to have their anxiety under control, they are released on an outpatient basis, usually required to follow up with their therapist or other medical professionals for observation and any changes required for the medication. Treatment of hysterical neurosis depends on underlying conditions, the severity of the episodes, and the patient’s medical and mental health history.

Hysteria Prevention

Although hysteria is a term which we known to be an outdated, and used as a broad term for a variety of conditions which were primarily experienced by females, hysteria today is a still a word referring to the uncontained excitement of a person, and is considered as more of a psychological state rather than a medical condition, which was suffered by women. In the past, however, prevention consisted of a variety of concoctions and in clinical treatments, which today, we know to be somewhat questionable.

At the time, medical professionals felt treatments were effective and gave a sense of relief to the patient. Today, a healthy lifestyle and exercise are the best ways to control conditions which once fell under the diagnosis of hysteria. Hysterical neurosis is the most closely associated term which paralleled the symptoms stemming from issues which create uncontained excitement and nervousness.

Treating existing conditions appropriately rather than self-medicating is also one of the best methods to prevent the symptoms of hysterical neurosis from presenting themselves. If the patient needs a prescription for certain medications for their condition, ensuring they take the medication as directed can also prevent a psychological episode from occurring. Ultimately a combination of close patient monitoring and acute diagnosis of alternate, modern-day recognized conditions can help patients believed to be suffering from hysterical neurosis, and prevent the symptoms from worsening.

Last Reviewed:
September 18, 2017
Last Updated:
January 15, 2018
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