||This article contains weasel words: vague phrasing that often accompanies biased or unverifiable information. (April 2016)|
Women with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis
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Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, reserved exclusively for 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 of both genders was widely discussed in the medical literature of the nineteenth century. Women considered to have 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 might be forced to enter an insane asylum or to undergo surgical hysterectomy. Female hysteria was often attributed to sexual frustration, with females being unable to reduce stress via vaginal intercourse; this led to physicians recommending private clitoral stimulation at home. Women unable to do so on their own received relief via a genital massage from a physician, although this caused concern in the medical community, who would go on to invent the vibrator to do the massage for them.[by whom?] The vibrator later became a commercial product, so women could relieve sexual frustration at home. By the 20th century, female hysteria was a thing of the past,[timeframe?] as vibrators became widespread and non-sexual frustration symptoms were attributed to other problems.
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 a supposed 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 George Taylor in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. George Beard, a 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 US was on par with Europe;[clarification needed] one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.
During the early twentieth century, the number of women diagnosed with female hysteria declined sharply. This decline has been attributed to many reasons. Many medical authors[who?] 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[when?] considered a catchall diagnosis where any unidentifiable ailment could be assigned. As diagnostic techniques improved, the number of ambiguous cases that might have been attributed to hysteria declined. 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, borderline personality disorder, conversion disorder, and anxiety attacks.
- Hysterical contagion
- Mass psychogenic illness
- Mass hysteria
- Conversion disorder
- Male hysteria
- Vapours (disease)
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