The first step to achieving, both, inner and world peace, is through understanding. 

Instead of pushing away or shunning what is different to you, what stands out, maybe listening to and understanding the ‘other’ might teach you something new or even change your perception on something. And so – understanding what some words weigh and what their origin of usage was, and how they got to where they are now is one way of picking the right choice of words when it’s our turn to speak. 

This week, we talk about Hysteria; The origin of the word, the mental disorder, the misconceptions around it and what it means today. 

What is Hysteria?

“Hysteria”, the “Ladies’ Disease”, was the first mental disorder ever attributed to women (and only women), with the most interesting variety of symptoms I’ve heard of yet, including but not limited to: anxiety, hallucinations, emotional outbursts, hot flashes, insomnia, shortness of breath and the most popular: sexually forward behavior. 

The term hysteria itself stems from the Greek hystera, which means uterus. While it isn’t an ancient term, it’s known that Greek founder of western medicine, Hippocrates, first coined it in the 5th century BC, attributing its cause to abnormal movements of the womb in a woman’s body. The term “hysterical suffocation”, referring to the feeling of overheating and inability to breathe, was instead used in ancient Greek medicine. The Greeks believed that the uterus moved through a woman’s body, eventually strangling her and inducing disease, and by linking the symptoms to the uterus, suggesting that the disorder can only be found in women

The History of Hysteria

By the late 19th century, however, it had started to become considered a mental disorder, with French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud experimenting with hypnosis as treatment

“Today, psychology recognizes different types of disorders that were historically known as hysteria including dissociative disorders and somatoform disorders,” Psychology Educator Kendra Cherry writes. 

“Dissociative disorders are psychological disorders that involve a dissociation or interruption in aspects of consciousness, including identity and memory. These types of disorders include dissociative fugue, dissociative identity disorder, and dissociative amnesia.

“Somatoform disorder is a class of psychological disorder that involves physical symptoms that do not have a physical cause. These symptoms usually mimic real diseases or injuries. Such disorders include conversion disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and somatization disorder.” 

Hysteria may not be a valid psychiatric diagnosis today, but it is a good example of how concepts can emerge, change, and be replaced as we gain a greater understanding of how human beings think and behave. Modern medical professionals have officially abandoned using the term to denote a diagnostic category, replacing it with more precise categories. 

Fainting, outbursts, nervousness and irritability weren’t the only hallmarks of female hysteria; certain core aspects of female sexuality, desire and sexual frustration were also on the list. As Mother Jones reports, “excessive vaginal lubrication” and “erotic fantasy” were also both considered symptoms of the disease, of which were cured using the most… interesting… methods.


Massaging the woman’s pelvis (i.e., her genitals) to reach the “hysterical paroxysm” (i.e., orgasm) was embraced by many health experts as the cure for female hysteria.

Though the practice dates back to the Renaissance, it reached its peak and became a popular money-maker for the medical establishment during the Victorian era. “By the early 19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and the U.S. and proved a financial godsend for many doctors,” Psychology Today explains.

It eventually went on from being physician-assisted to the invention of horse-shaped vibrating machines for women to ride on at home; from electrical massagers and portable vibrators to high-powered douching hydro-therapy aiming straight at the female’s private area. And as mentioned earlier, Mother Jones has published a timeline of the “female hysteria” phenomenon and the sex toys used to treat it, which you will find extremely interesting and can find here

Hysteria in Today’s World

Until the 20th century, the label was applied to a mental rather than physical affliction, but today, hysteria is no longer thought of as a real ailment. In modern usage, the term connotes panic and the inability to control emotions, often associated with events like the Salem Witch Trials, but that’s for another time.

According to the Huffington Post’s Catherine Pearson, “It’s easy to laugh-off female hysteria as preposterous and antiquated pseudo-science, but the fact is, the American Psychiatric Association didn’t drop the term until the early 1950s. And though it had taken on a very different meaning from its early roots, “hysterical neurosis” didn’t disappear from the DSM — often referred to as the bible of modern psychiatry — until 1980. Sadly, we’re still feeling the impact of this highly-entrenched medical diagnosis today. The “crazy” and “hysterical” labels are hard ones for women to completely shake.”

So next time you come across a girlfriend being disproportionately emotional, or just feeling hypersensitive, calling her ‘hysterical’ won’t really be helping anything or anyone. Some words have weight to them, a history and a connotation we should at least be aware of before we decide to talk about them.

Have something to say? Join the conversation in our Facebook Group: “The Empower Community”

Feel free to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get the latest releases on all our articles & media. We include our celebrity guest’s take on Mental Health and Wellbeing.