Hysteria was a term was used to characterize a number of psychological symptoms such as blindness, loss of sensation, hallucinations, suggestibility, and highly emotional behavior. It is also sometimes colloquially used to describe excessively emotional behavior.

History of Hysteria

The term hysteria is at least two thousand years old, and it has been used to describe a variety of conditions. For much of the term’s history, hysteria was a condition attributed exclusively to women. It was thought to occur as a result of problems in the uterus. In ancient Greece, the “wandering womb” theory claimed that a displaced uterus caused hysterical symptoms.

In the Victorian era, hysteria was commonly used to refer to female sexual dysfunction, including both high and low libidos. Physicians treated the condition by using vibrators, and by the early 20th century, vibrators were being marketed to women for home treatment of symptoms of hysteria.

Sigmund Freud believed that hysterical symptoms were defense mechanisms against sexual conditions, and much of Freudian psychology is based on Freud’s work with women whom he believed to be hysterical.

Contemporary Understanding of Hysteria

People are no longer diagnosed with hysteria. Symptoms previously labeled as hysteria are now associated with dissociative and somatoform illnesses, and these illnesses are not gender-specific. Dissociative illnesses include conditions such as dissociative identity disorder, dissociative fugue, and depersonalization disorder. These can occur when a person feels that he or she is separating from reality.

Somatoform illnesses also include symptoms previously associated with hysteria and are characterized by physical illnesses not fully explained by a physical cause.

Contemporary psychologists may use the term “mass hysteria” to refer to irrational reactions by large groups of people, such as the response surrounding the Salem Witch Trials.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 08-10-2015

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