Hysteria: A Controversial History


HYSTERIA—and its reputation for being the first mental disorder attributed to women alone—surfaces in contemporary news reports every decade or so.  Now a company called Hysteria proposes to “change the term hysteria into a movement of positivity, taking back our sexuality” with a website offering resources for women “as well as reviewed products to fit their needs.”

Labeling women hysterical, meaning crazy, is “alive and well,” according to Huffington Post’s “tour of just seven of the weirdest things so-called ‘experts’ used to believe about female hysteria.”

Symptoms and Diagnoses

Among hysteria’s symptoms, accumulated over centuries of diagnosing the disease, are “nervousness, hallucinations, emotional outbursts and various urges of the sexual variety,” as well as sexy thoughts, sexual frustration and “excessive vaginal lubrication.” Also, the inclination of “lascivious females to venery,” attributed to the buildup of “sexual fluids.”

“Cheerleaders’ Disease” was hysteria’s most recent public iteration—though more aptly labeled “mass hysteria.”  In 2002 North Carolina and then in 2011 near Buffalo, one cheerleader’s strange physical symptoms—Tourette’s-like tics and movements, voices breaking and warbling—were initially related to that girl’s emotional distress but soon “caught” by other girls.

Blame for hysteria’s symptoms went first to a wandering uterus—in Egyptian texts dating to the 19th century B.C.—although the term came from Hippocrates (founder of Western medicine in the 5th century B.C.). The condition was first deemed a physical disease traced to abnormal womb movements and later a psychosomatic condition in which physical symptoms reflected underlying psychological issues.

“Irregular motions of the animal spirits” was how these symptoms were described in the 1600s by British physician Thomas Sydenham. He reported hysteria as the second most common malady of the time, after fevers.

High-pressure hosing of the vagina with very cold water was said to help, as were the healing properties of semen —resulting in a prescription of marriage, because it was accompanied by regular sexual intercourse.


Pelvic massage or physician-assisted paroxysm (orgasm) became the main cure starting in the Renaissance and was “firmly entrenched” in Europe and the U.S. by the early 19th century.  Then came the vibrator,  a welcome advance for doctors who “sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers”—as shown in the 2012 film “Hysteria,” which portrayed the “rampant hysteria affecting England’s sexually and socially repressed.”

In 19th-century France, adolescent girls considered excessively sexual, because of their behavior or because they became pregnant, were removed from society’s temptations to live in the walled city of Paris’s vast Salpetriere Hospital, often for the rest of their lives.  Those women exhibiting extremely contorted physical poses were chosen by Jean-Martin Charcot and his student Sigmund Freud to show off in amphitheaters filled with curious medical observers.

The term “female hysteria” remained in use by the American Psychiatric Association until the early 1950s, and “hysterical neurosis” was not removed from the DSM, psychiatry’s diagnostic manual until 1980.  Today, hysterical symptoms are considered manifestations of dissociative disorders, such as amnesia and identity disorder, although the decreasing diagnosis of hysteria has coincided with a rise in that of depression in Western societies.

A New Interpretation

Brain imaging on patients with hysterical paralysis, that is, those who have healthy nerves and muscles but a functional inability to initiate movement, has shown that attempts to move paralyzed limbs activate parts of the brain associated with action and emotion instead of the motor cortex. Those in turn inhibit normal function of the brain responsible for movement, sensation and sight. Even after brain scans and revised terminology, hysteria is still associated in many people’s minds to women behaving erratically and unpredictably—something Hysteria Wellness intends to change.  Among the website’s useful information is a history of hysteria, ending with a 2000 Alabama state court ruling that deemed sexual health a serious “health concern in which sex tools are necessary.”

Hysteria Wellness promotes openness about issues of female health, notably urinary incontinence. Its related products come in prettier colors and more interesting shapes than those available from medical suppliers, albeit with higher price tags (slightly offset until December 5 by a site-launching promotion of free shipping with code FREESHIP).

Other featured products contain CBD oil; and the “Hysteria Accessory Set” (coconut oil and a Turkish towel) “accessorizes any of our products with a little extra comfort.”  Despite the commercial angle—with or without accessories—the website may finally be heralding an era in which previously embarrassing and shunned aspects of hysteria are embraced and even celebrated.

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter reports on health news we can use.

One thought on “Hysteria: A Controversial History

  1. Nancy G says:

    Someone recently used the word “hysteria “ in conversation and I immediately thought of this history for some reason. Fascinating.

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