What is Female Hysteria?

For centuries, experts have diagnosed women with hysteria allegedly a mental health problem that eliminates any behavior or symptoms that bother men. In these diagnoses, research has been done on overexcitement, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression symptoms, and even infertility, and these health conditions have been included in the definition of female hysteria. During the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria was one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders. But the misconception that women are somehow prone to mental and behavioral conditions is much older than that. In fact, the term hysteria originated in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates and Plato have spoken of hysteria, citing conditions related to the uterus, which they say causes a series of physical and mental conditions in women. This article contains information about what is female hysteria, its symptoms, how was it treated in history, and how it was diagnosed as a medical condition?

Women’s Hysteria in the 18th Century

While definitions and concepts of female hysteria date back to the history of medicine and philosophy, its diagnosis became popular in the 18th century. In 1748, the French physician Joseph Raulin described it as a vapor disease, a disease that is spread by air pollution in large urban areas, and in French it means evaporation of love. While Raulin states that both men and women can get hysteria, according to him, women are of the opinion that they are more prone to this ailment due to their restless nature. In a review report published by French physician François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix in 1770-1773, hysteria was defined as emotional instability and was defined as sudden changes in mood with great sensitivity. There are symptoms of hysteria named after him, some of which are as follows:

  • Abdominal swelling
  • Choking angina (chest pain) or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Cold extremities
  • Crying or laughing
  • Indecision
  • Pandiculation (stretch or stretch)
  • Delirium
  • Frequent and rapid heart rate
  • frequent urination

De Sauvages agrees with his predecessors that this condition primarily affects women and that men are only rarely hysterical. According to De Sauvages, sexual abstinence is often the cause of female hysteria. To explain this, he presented a case study of a nun affected by hysteria, but when a good barber commissioned the nun to please, the nun recovered. Another way to treat cases of hysteria was through mesmerism, a so-called psychosomatic therapy popularized by Franz Anton Mesmer, an active German doctor in 18th century Europe. Mesmer believes that living beings are affected by magnetism, an invisible current whose imbalances or fluctuations through animals and humans can cause health impairments. He claimed that it could act against this magnetic low current and heal people from various ailments, including hysteria.

Hysteria in the 19th Century

During the 19th century and early 20th century, perhaps more research has been done on female hysteria and its potential causes. In the 1850s, American doctor Silas Weir Mitchell, who had a special interest in hysteria, began to introduce rest therapy as a cure for this ailment. Recovery therapy includes plenty of bed rest and strict avoidance of all physical and intellectual activities. Mitchell prescribed this treatment preferentially to women he thought had hysteria. On the contrary, he advised men with hysteria to do lots of outdoor exercises. Mitchell famously recommended rest therapy to American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who found it sad enough to write The Yellow Wallpaper, a psychological horror story that maps out the slow psychological deterioration of a woman forced by her doctor.

In France, neuropsychiatrist Pierre Janet, who was the most active between 1880 and 1900, argued that hysteria was caused by a person’s own distorted perception of physical illness. He wrote that hysteria is a nerve disease in which unconsciousness occurs, which is usually characterized by symptoms such as sleepwalking, the appearance of double personalities, and involuntary convulsions.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was also interested in hysteria, but he pointed to his views on the causes throughout his career. He argued that hysteria is the transformation of psychological problems into physical symptoms, usually with an element of erotic suppression. Previously, he suggested that the symptoms of hysteria were caused by traumatic situations, but later said that there was no need to experience a prior trauma for the development of hysteria.


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