By Natalie Fraize
Hysteria is a term that has its roots in Greek medicine coming from the word “hystera,” meaning uterus (Ng, 1999). From the beginning the disease was primarily diagnosed in females. Symptoms have ranged from the physiological, such as shortness of breath and epilepsy,* to the psychological, including hypochondriasis, depression, and conversion. This disease served as a sort of catch-all diagnosis, especially for female patients suffering from elusive symptoms, during its lengthy, international lifespan.
Often times female patients were considered deceitful or faking symptoms*creating a negative image for women suffering from mental and physical illness (Ng, 1999). In some situations patients would mimic others to receive attention, and it is possible that women did this as a way to gain acknowledgment in their male-dominated societies by appealing to this dramatized version of hysteria. Regardless, many of these women were experiencing legitimate psychological discomfort and hysteria was a diagnosis under which countless symptoms fell.
This section will trace the development* of hysteria across cultures and through time from about 460 B.C. until the early to mid 1900s when women’s rights were becoming more recognized in the United States. Around this time hysteria was becoming a much less used diagnosis and was not published in the DSM (Libbrecht, 1995).
*These are links to the pages that discuss the topics in that paragraph in more depth.
Libbrecht, Katrien (1995). Hysterical Psychosis: A Historical Survey. New Brunswick and London: Transaction.
Ng, Beng-Yeong (1999). Hysteria; A cross-cultural comparison of its origins and history. History of Psychiatry, 10, 287-301.