Female hysteria was once a common medical diagnosis for women. It is no longer recognized by medical authorities as a medical disorder, but still has lasting social implications. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for hundreds of years in Western Europe. In Western medicine hysteria was considered both common and chronic among women. The American Psychiatric Association dropped the term hysteria in 1952. Even though it was categorized as a disease, hysteria's symptoms were synonymous with normal functioning female sexuality. Women considered to have it exhibited a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and a "tendency to cause trouble".
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The history of hysteria can be traced to ancient times. Dating back to 1900 BC in Ancient Egypt, the first descriptions of hysteria within the female body were found recorded on the Kahun Papyri. In ancient Greece, it was described in the gynecological treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus, which dates back to 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 have mingled with male semen during intercourse. The female semen was believed to have been stored in the womb. Hysteria was referred to as "the widow's disease", because the female semen was believed to turn venomous if not released through regular climax or intercourse. If the patient was married, this could be completed by intercourse with their spouse. Other than participating in sexual intercourse, it was thought that women could position the uterus back into place with fumigation of both the face and genitals. Fumigating the body with special fragrances would supposedly place the uterus into its natural spot in the female body.
Up to and during the 17th century, people who showed signs of hysteria were categorized as being mentally ill. People suffering from hysteria and other forms of mental illness were thought to be possessed by demons. After this time period, the correlation of demonic possession and hysteria were gradually discarded and instead was described as behavioral deviance, a medical issue.
In the 18th century, hysteria slowly became associated with mechanisms in the brain rather than the uterus. French physician Philippe Pinel freed hysteria patients detained in Paris’ Salpêtrière sanatorium on the basis that kindness and sensitivity are needed to formulate good care.
George Beard, a physician who cataloged an incomplete list including 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria, claimed that almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stress associated with the typical female life at the time caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. One American physician expressed pleasure in the fact that the country was "catching up" to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.
Rachel Maines hypothesized that doctors from the classical era up until the early 20th century commonly treated hysteria by masturbating female patients to orgasm (termed "hysterical paroxysm"), and that the inconvenience of this may have driven the early development of and the market for the vibrator. Although Maines's theory that hysteria was treated by masturbating female patients to orgasm is widely repeated in the literature on female anatomy and sexuality, some historians dispute Maines's claims about the prevalence of this treatment for hysteria and about its relevance to the invention of the vibrator, describing them as a distortion of the evidence or that it was only relevant to an extremely narrow group. Maines has said that her theory should be treated as a hypothesis rather than a fact.
During the early 20th century, the number of women diagnosed with female hysteria sharply declined. This decline has been attributed to many factors. Some medical authors claim that the decline was due to gaining a greater understanding of the psychology behind conversion disorders such as hysteria.
With so many possible symptoms, historically hysteria was 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. Sigmund Freud was fascinated by cases of hysteria. He thought that hysteria may have been related to the unconscious mind and separate from the conscious mind or the ego. He was convinced that deep conflicts in the mind, some concerning instinctual drives for sex and aggression, were driving the behavior of those with hysteria. Freud developed psychoanalysis in order to help patients that had been diagnosed with hysteria reduce internal conflicts causing physical and emotional suffering. As a result, theories relating to hysteria came from pure speculation. Doctors and physicians could not connect symptoms to the disorder, causing it to decline rapidly.
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.
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