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What Is Hysteria in Personality? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 History of Hysteria
  • 0:50 Freud and Early Psychology
  • 2:19 Modern Understanding
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

In this lesson, you will learn about the pre-scientific concept of hysteria, and how it came to be regarded by modern psychology. It's an excellent example of how concepts can develop from antiquity and into today's science.

History of Hysteria

Have you ever heard of the term 'mass hysteria'? Mass hysteria is generally a description of a variety of irrational social behaviors committed by a group of people. Hysteria is one of those words with a variety of meanings. These meanings depend on the context of the word and who is using it. Some people use the word 'hysterical' to refer to people who are acting irrationally, particularly if they are acting out of panic.

The Ancient Greeks coined the term hysteria to refer to a variety of mental disturbances. Since the Greeks believed these kinds of disturbances occurred only in women, they named it after the uterus (hystera in Greek). This lesson will discuss the way the term is used in psychology, beginning with earlier definitions and moving into those available by contemporary psychologists.

Freud and Early Psychology

The earliest scientific understanding of hysteria began in the 19th century, much like psychology itself. Hysteria was defined as a range of physical symptoms caused by no known physical issues. these symptoms could include paralysis and problems walking or swallowing. There was still the belief that the condition was experienced only by women.

The treatments for the condition often focused on women's sexual organs or sexual habits. French physician Jean Martin Charcot is considered the first to treat hysteria as a mental illness through the use of hypnosis and other methods. His work firmly established that the condition is one in the patient's mind, with no relation to the patient's gender.

Sigmund Freud, noted psychologist, developed his own theories about hysteria. Freud still considered hysteria to be a form of sexual dysfunction. He felt that Charcot's work, however, had proven hysteria to be in the mind of the patient, treatable through psychology. Freud's work with his own patients led him to formulate the theory that hysterical symptoms were caused by childhood trauma. In particular, Freud blamed childhood sexual abuse or similar trauma.

Modern mental health professionals consider Freud's work in this area as rather sketchy, as he didn't examine nearly enough patients in order to support his very broad conclusions. In some cases, his patients' symptoms matched those associated with epilepsy or other neurological disorders because hysteria was still rather poorly defined.

Modern Understanding

As is often the case in science, Freud's work was important because it started a conversation or debate, not because it was right. Modern psychologists consider Freud's conclusions incorrect. But the debate over these theories has brought about today's understanding of the condition. The term hysteria is no longer used in the clinical sense; instead, the very broad symptoms of hysteria have been taken to be symptoms of a variety of different mental health issues.

A recent re-organization of the diagnostic manual, DSM-5, in 2013 has changed the criteria somewhat of the first family of disorders we'll discuss: somatic symptom disorder. The closest of these mental health issues to Freud's idea of hysteria is somatic symptom disorder. Also known as SSD, these disorders tend to involve physical symptoms and excessive anxiety or worry about physical health. The earlier DSM required that physical tests rule out known physical causes of these symptoms, but the current one does not. It is reasonable for someone to be concerned about a chronic illness, but if the person's daily life is disrupted by excessive worry or paralyzing fear a diagnosis of SSD may still be warranted. In those without a physical cause, the symptoms seem real and are not faked by the patient. SSD replaces several old diagnoses, such as hypochondriasis, and is closely related to other illnesses such as conversion disorder.

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