I wanted to write about “hysteria” because I have been in a analytic training program and our class has been studying it over the last few months. I had lots of questions and feelings about the word, and why this condition was associated with women. Why women? The other question is, why is it still used today?
Let’s start with the word itself “hysteria,” it comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb.” In the 1800’s, when this emotional condition was diagnosed, and because women were the people seeking treatment, in addition, at that time in history women were thought of as weaker and prone to fainting when they became overwhelmed with emotion, hence the term “hysteria” was given. One possible reason women may have had fainting spells in that era was because they had a lot of pent up feelings and emotions related to being essentially discriminated against. So, in keeping with the definition of “hysteria,” meaning the physical body symptoms telling something about the mind, women were trying to communicate unconsciously, about discrimination. Men, by the way, also experienced “hysteria,” although the psychological society, largely men at that time was not willing to listen or agree with the findings and so the term “hysteria” continues today.
Patients who were referred to as hysterics, those who suffered from physical problems but had no physical diagnosis were thought of as having a weakened nervous system. Freud, following Charcot, Bernheim, and other practitioners of medical hypnotism, demonstrated that hysterics suffered a disease not of brain but of mind (Mitchell & Black 1995). This was the defining moment of how psychoanalysis began.