Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble". In extreme cases the woman would be forced into the asylum and undergo surgical hysterectomy.
The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Plato's dialogue Timaeus compares a woman's uterus to a living creature that wanders throughout a woman’s body, "blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease." The concept of a pathological, wandering womb was later viewed as the source of the term hysteria, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus, ὑστέρα (hystera).
Another cause was thought to be the retention of female semen, thought to mingle with male semen during intercourse. This was believed to be stored in the womb. Hysteria was referred to as "the widow's disease", since the female semen was believed to turn venomous if not released through regular climax or intercourse.
A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. One physician catalogued seventy-five pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete; almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. In the United States, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the U.S. was on par with Europe; one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.
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During the early 20th century, the number of women diagnosed with female hysteria declined sharply. Many reasons have been attributed to this decline. Many medical authors claim that the decline was due to laypeople gaining a greater understanding of the psychology behind conversion disorders such as hysteria.
With so many possible symptoms, hysteria was always considered a catchall diagnosis where any unidentifiable ailment could be assigned. As diagnostic techniques improved, the number of cases were pared down until nothing was left. For instance, before the introduction of electroencephalography, epilepsy was frequently confused with hysteria. Many cases that had previously been labeled hysteria were reclassified by Sigmund Freud as anxiety neuroses.
Today, female hysteria is no longer a recognized illness, but different manifestations of hysteria are recognized in other conditions such as schizophrenia, conversion disorder, and anxiety attacks.
- Histrionic personality disorder
- Human female sexuality
- Hysteria (2011 film)
- Borderline personality disorder
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