The History of Hysteria

An overview of where the term ‘hysteria’ comes from.


‘Hysteria’ is a word which we hear all the time. Fans are hysterical at meeting their idol, victims are hysterical in the aftermath of a trauma, friends are hysterical at an inside joke. On a regular basis we associate the word with out of control emotions. But where exactly did the word come from?

It may surprise most people to discover that hysteria was actually a psychological condition which had increasing attention from the 16th century through to the 19th century, when Sigmund Freud himself looked into the matter.

Hysteria was a condition where women became overly emotional and had symptoms including paralysis and seizures. Doctors knew little about the condition, and tended to dismiss women who were seen to have it.

They key point here is just that: It was women who had it. Hysteria was seen as a condition which only affected females. That may seem odd, but when you actually consider the origins of the word hysteria, it is less so.

Hysteria comes from the Greek word ‘hystera’ – uterus. Hysteria was seen as a female condition because it was believed that it was caused by a ‘wandering womb’ troubling the body. Whilst in today’s world, the idea of the uterus being its own animal inside the body is strange, this was what professionals at the time believed it to be. They didn’t know any better, and it was a sensible explanation to them in the lack of other facts.

Medicine at the time was focussed on body parts having specific roles which they had to carry out in order to be happy (an idea from ancient Greece). The role of the womb was to carry children. Hence, many doctors believed if a woman did not conceive, or was sexually deprived, the uterus became restless and went for a merry old jaunt round the body. As organs are prone to do. It was this that led to the emotional fits of hysterics, according to the doctors.

Treatments for hysterics were rare, as doctors believed the women who had it were not worth their time. It was, after all, their own fault that they were not having child after child in order to appease their body. There were, however, some treatments which were used in the 19th century, when further studies were done into the disease.

The hysterectomy is the removal of the uterus, and at this time was seen as a way of relieving a woman from her troublesome organ, hence ridding her of the disease. Today, hysterectomies are still a common procedure for women with cancer in this area or a high risk of it. Yet, I bet few people ever think to associate the ‘hyster’ part with ‘hysteria’. It is just one of those things we are blinded to until someone points out the link. Well, here I am doing just that for you.

Other treatments (especially once Freud got involved) focused on hysteria being a psychological condition which could also occur in men. However, the disease is now not classified, and mental illnesses are split into much more specific categories than such an umbrella term. That’s the beauty of increased medical research, I guess.

Next time someone says they’re getting ‘hysterical’ though, at least you’ll have an understanding of the origins of the word. Even if nowadays we know wombs aren’t fond of a trip round the body when they’re a little bit bored.



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