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The Mysterious Case of Hysteria.

The question of hysteria remains a mystery. What was it? Why did it only affect women? But the disease’s disappearance in the Modern age remains an even bigger part of this mystery.

Let’s discuss Hysteria.

hysteria in women- the mind review
Hysteria/ credits-google

The first known mention of Hysteria that we know of is from 1900 BC ancient Egypt. References of depressive syndromes, traditional symptoms of hysteria were found in the Eber Papyrus (1600 BC) the oldest medical document. It was described as grand mal seizures and the sense of suffocation leading to death. We also find treatments depending on the position of the uterus, which must be forced to return to its natural position. If the uterus had moved upwards, placing foul odour near the woman’s mouth and nostrils, while fragrant was placed near her vagina; on the contrary, if the uterus had lowered, the vice versa were to be performed.

It was Hippocrates who first used the term ‘hysteria’ from the Greek word “hysterikos” which literally translates to “suffering in womb”. The physician also believed that the womb moving and wandering inside a woman’s body is the cause of the disease and thus, the disease only affected women. It was also believed that the symptoms dictated where the uterus roamed. Since then it was not late until every disease a woman endured was labelled hysteria or a symptom of hysteria.

pandoras box the mind review
Pandora's Box/ Credits- Google

Most of Hippocrates’ diagnosis of hysteria can be seen to have originated from Greek mythologies. One instance that can be clearly seen is- Pandora’s box. Pandora, the first woman ever created by Zeus was a “punishment” for humankind, she was created after Prometheus stole fire for human use and thus, Zeus wanted to punish the humans- creations of Prometheus. She held a box containing all the world’s evils which she was asked never to open but couldn’t resist the mystery and peeked inside- thus, unleashing all evils of the world. Pandora’s Box or Pandora’s Jar is commonly associated to her womb. It is said that Pandora’s outer beauty was a mere disguise for her evil and dangerous insides. Her outside appearance is considered deceptive for her voracious womb- the box. We can see that Hippocratic Corpus contains ideas about the womb from the mythology and thus the womb was considered the root of all female problems and complaints. That is to say, the womb was treated like an animal living within another.

" The Hippocratic thought that the womb moved upward in the woman's body whenever it became hot and dry from overwork, or lack of irrigation from male seed, searching for cool and moist places in an effort to restore its equilibrium. As the womb tried to force its way toward the crowded places at the center of a woman's trunk, it wreaked havoc on her physical and mental well-being, causing her to faint or become speechless. Foul odours at the nose and sweet smells at the vagina were prescribed, to lure the uterus back to its seat." (340, Rowlandson)

Honey and other sweet fragrant items were prescribed to lure the womb back to its place. Other treatments involved potions, fumigations, and baths. But sex and pregnancy were declared the ultimate cures. It was thought that when a woman does not have intercourse, her womb becomes dry, and is liable to become displaced.

Anatomist Thomas Willis (1600s) was the first physician to dismiss the fact that hysteria originated in the womb and argued that perhaps it was the brain that was at fault.

Another notable and revolutionary work on hysteria was done by Jean-Martin Charcot, who studied and tried to cure patients of hysteria through hypnosis. His initial diagnosis believed that hysteria was a neurological disorder that occurred due to pre-disposed hereditary factors and issues in the nervous system but approaching the end of his life, he concluded that hysteria was a psychological disease. But perhaps the most unique and groundbreaking finding of his was the prevalence of the disease in men. According to him, cases in men were left unrecognized and undiagnosed due to the presumption that the disease was womb based and female-specific. He presented several cases of traumatic male hysteria and recognized railway engineers and soldiers as the most hysteria-prone groups due to their very specific models of masculinity.

hysteria in women, what is hysteria? the mind review

Sigmund Freud developed an interest in the field of hysteria and closely observed the patients of hysteria after his stay with Charcot in the winter of 1885-1886. He continued working on it and developed his own theory according to which hysteria was rooted in the traumatic events of an individual’s life and the repression of negative emotions that arise due to it. Though before settling onto the above theory Freud developed the concept of conversion of psychological problems into somatic manifestations, with a strong 'sexualization' of hysteria. In his 1896 paper, "The Aetiology of Hysteria" he put forward what later came to be known as the seduction theory. He used a sample of 18 patients- male and female and argued that all were sexually assaulted as children. Concluding that sexual trauma inflicted on a child is directly related to repressed emotions of pain in adulthood resulting in Hysteria. Though this theory was dismissed by Freud the following year. Freud also took a different approach from that of Charcot, he argued that nurture played a greater role in developing hysteria than nature ( hereditary factors as argued by Charcot). Freud also seems to have borrowed the concept of “provoking agent” or “triggers” in hysteria from Charcot but for Freud these triggers were negative experiences rather than hereditary predispositions.

It was finally in the year 1980 that the term “hysteria” or “hysterical neurosis, conversion type” was removed from the DSM and replaced by “Conversion Disorder”. Hysteria symptoms were large and varied, today they are diagnosed with various different dissociative and somatic disorders.

Symptoms that were once considered characteristic of Hysteria include blindness, emotional outbursts, hallucinations, histrionic behaviour (being overly dramatic or excitable), increased suggestibility, and loss of sensation Other symptoms that have been associated with it include severe pain in any body part, palpitation, headache, shortness of breath, suffocation, clenching of teeth, swollen neck, laughing or crying without cause.

These symptoms are today categorized into different dissociative disorders, including:

  • Depersonalization-derealisation disorder

  • Dissociative amnesia

  • Dissociative identity disorder

  • Dissociative fugue

and somatic disorders:

  • Conversion disorder

  • Factitious disorder

  • Illness anxiety disorder

What is Conversion Disorder?

Conversion disorder is a psychiatric disorder affecting the sensory or motor functioning of an individual. The symptoms happen because your brain “converts” the effects of a mental health issue into disruptions of your brain or nervous system. The symptoms are real but don’t match up with recognized brain-related conditions. While it’s a mental health condition, the physical symptoms are still real. A person with conversion disorder can’t control the symptoms just by trying or thinking about it.

It is found that though the disorder is found in all genders, women and designated women at birth are twice as likely to be affected than men or designated men at birth. Today, conversion disorder is not a common disease- it affects only 4 to 12 people out of 100,000 each year.

Signs and symptoms that affect body movement and function may include:

· Weakness or paralysis

· Abnormal movement, such as tremors or difficulty walking

· Loss of balance

· Difficulty swallowing or feeling "a lump in the throat"

· Seizures or episodes of shaking and apparent loss of consciousness (nonepileptic seizures)

· Episodes of unresponsiveness

Signs and symptoms that affect the senses may include:

· Numbness or loss of the touch sensation

· Speech problems, such as the inability to speak or slurred speech

· Vision problems, such as double vision or blindness

· Hearing problems or deafness

· Cognitive difficulties involving memory and concentration

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of functional neurologic disorder include:

· Having a neurological disease or disorder, such as epilepsy, migraines or a movement disorder

· Recent significant stress or emotional or physical trauma

· Having a mental health condition, such as a mood or anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder or certain personality disorders

· Having a family member with a neurological condition or symptoms

· Having a history of physical or sexual abuse or neglect in childhood

Hysteria and Sexism

It is not false to say that Hysteria had its roots in sexism and provided an excuse to treat women as the second gender. It not only became grounds for which women were not allowed to hold any relevant positions in society or had any rights but also contributed to the death of millions of women all around the globe.

the mind review Conversion Disorder, hysteria and sexism
Credits- Google

Every disease and complaint a woman had was disguised as "hysteria" and improper treatment was given, leading to an eventual decline in their health and death. The recommended treatments and practices were sexist in nature as well, providing men with an excuse for sexually harassing the women or patients in the name of "treatment". Hysteria was seen as demonological in nature and contributed to practices like witch-hunt and provided men with an excuse to abandon their wives and label them 'hysteric' even without the symptoms. The growing field of science has helped in abolishing this misconception and building a comparatively safer world for women and those suffering from Conversion disorder.



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