What Is Hysteria? (An Overview and Introduction)

Photographs of women being treated for hysteria by Charcot. Image from the Wikimedia Commons

In psychology, the term hysteria was once used to describe a medical condition thought to affect only women. Symptoms of the illness included partial paralysis, hallucinations, and nervousness. The term is thought to originate from ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who associated these symptoms with the movement of a woman's uterus throughout different locations in the body. The term hysteria is from the Greek hystera, which means uterus.

The History of Hysteria

During the late 1800s, hysteria came to be viewed as a psychological disorder. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot utilized hypnosis to treat women suffering from hysteria.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud studied with Charcot. Freud's work with colleague Josef Breuer on the case of Anna O., a young woman experiencing the symptoms of hysteria, helped lead to the development of psychoanalytic therapy.

Hysteria In Modern Psychology

Today, psychology recognizes two different types of disorders that were historically known as hysteria: dissociative disorders and somatoform disorders. Dissociative disorders are psychological disorders that involve a dissociation or interruption in aspects of consciousness, including identity and memory. These types of disorders include dissociative fugue, dissociative identity disorder, and dissociative amnesia.

Somatoform disorder is a class of psychological disorder that involves physical symptoms that do not have a physical cause.

These symptoms usually mimic real diseases or injuries. Such disorders include conversion disorder, body dysmporphic disorder and somatization disorder.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Micklem, Niel (1996). The Nature of Hysteria. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-12186-8.

Continue Reading