Hysteria Psychological Disorder

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Hysteria Psychological Disorder

Hysteria is a wrongly diagnosed Western medical condition attributed primarily to women. Diagnosed most frequently during the Victorian era (1830s-1900), symptoms of female hysteria, which varied greatly for each individual, included fainting, shortness of breath, anxiety, loss of appetite, insomnia, irritability, and disinterest in sex with one's spouse. Hysteria was often believed to be caused by insufficient sexual intercourse or lack of sexual satisfaction. Many female patients diagnosed with hysteria were treated with a “pelvic massage” (sometimes from midwives or physicians and later with “therapeutic” vibrators) that would induce what doctors deemed “hysterical paroxysm” or orgasm. Until 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association officially dropped the term hysteria from its list of ailments, hysteria was one of the most commonly diagnosed diseases in Western medical history. This entry describes hysteria in Western society and Victorian society, as well as Sigmund Freud's views on hysteria(Showalter, p89).

Origins of Hysteria in Western Society

Notions of female hysteria can be traced back to early Western societies. Ancient Greek myths, which influenced Western medicine for hundreds of years, tell of a uterus moving through a woman's body, eventually strangling her and inducing disease. Thus, the term hysteria comes from a Greek word that means “that which proceeds from the uterus.” The myth of the wandering uterus harming the female patient infiltrated medical writings in ancient societies as well as the classical, medieval, and eventually the Renaissance period. Descriptions of genital massage as a common treatment for hysteria appear as far back as the Hippocratic corpus and in the works of Celsus, a lst-century CE Greek philosopher(Slavney, p78).

Women in ancient Western societies were commonly viewed as “incomplete” males or as having inverted male sexual organs, and the uterus was believed to be in rebellion against its own sexual deprivation. The cure for this, popularized by the prominent Greek physician Galen, was to lure the uterus back to where it usually presided in the pelvis and to expel its excess fluids. If a patient was a widow, nun, single, or in a sexless marriage, the proscribed “cure” was moving the pelvis in a swing or a rocking chair, riding horses vigorously, or massaging the vulva (usually performed by a midwife or physician). Single women who had symptoms of hysteria were normally told by their doctors to marry and have frequent sexual encounters with their new husbands(Micale, pp. 319).

Freud and Hysteria

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, studied with Charcot at the Salpêtrière in 1885 and 1886 and developed his own account of hysteria's neurotic origins. Based on 10 years of work with hysterical patients, he and Joseph Breuer wrote Studies on Hysteria (1895), a volume of case studies in which they argued that hysterical symptoms were the expression of psychic trauma and that the cure involved retrieving memories of the originating event, often through hypnosis. Breuer's first case was of Anna O. (a pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, who later became an active feminist), a young woman who developed multiple physical symptoms—cough, headaches, contractures of her right arm ...
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