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What is Hysteria?

Niki Acker
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Hysteria is an obsolete medical term that is still used colloquially to refer to a state of extreme fear or emotion and the resultant irrational behavior. The term was originally employed to describe women who acted irrationally due to a supposed disturbance of the uterus. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) replaced the diagnosis "hysterical neurosis, conversion type" with "conversion disorder."

The word is derived from the Greek for "uterus." According to ancient medical thought, women who refrained from sexual intercourse for a prolonged period suffered from mental disturbance as a result of the uterus retreating into the body and compressing the other organs. This theory was revived in 19th century medicine and again in the 1920s through the influence of Freud's psychological theories. Induced orgasm was used as treatment for supposedly hysterical women. The notion of so-called female hysteria has since been discredited.

In modern psychological thought, there are two types of hysteria: somatoform and dissociative. Somatoform hysteria is characterized by physical, or psychosomatic, symptoms. One example is conversion disorder, in which neurological symptoms such as paralysis, pain, and fits are present with no neurological cause. Other examples include body dysmorphic disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypochondria. Patients with this form are not faking their illnesses; rather, the symptoms have a psychological, or inorganic, cause instead of a biological one.

Dissociative hysteria is characterized by a fugue state, otherwise known as amnesia, in which the patient experiences a loss of identity to some degree. Memory loss and changes in personality are common symptoms. Like the other type, a fugue state is not intentional evasion, but rather an actual loss of recall due to psychological stress or trauma.

Current psychiatric theory holds that this condition is the body's attempt to deal with psychological distress. There may be a benefit to the patient, such as avoidance of whatever is causing the distress; someone might become too sick to continue working at a stressful job or living alone own, for example. Sometimes, however, there is no apparent benefit; for example, a person might experience symptoms of poisoning out of the mistaken belief that he or she has been poisoned.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Aug 29, 2012

@Oceana – Personal hysteria is so much different than mass hysteria. When you are the only person experiencing the problems, then you are not affected by what you see others doing around you.

I believe that my own personal hysteria is what made me miss so much school in the fourth grade. I hated school so much that I literally got sick every morning.

At first, it was just a general discomfort. After awhile, I actually began to vomit before school. I think this was my body's way of getting me out of class, because my parents could see that I actually wasn't faking.

By Oceana — On Aug 28, 2012

I have read about some bizarre cases of mass hysteria. It seems that everyone affected by it really believed in their symptoms or in the power of whatever influence they were under.

One case involved laughter that spread from one place to another until the masses were affected. They laughed to the point of pain, and nothing was even funny.

Another case was one in which people just could not stop dancing. This one was back in the sixteenth century, which makes it even more bizarre. The people literally danced until they died of a heart attack or exhaustion.

The ones I can relate to the most though are the cases involving strange illnesses. It is easy to imagine that you have symptoms when everyone around you is falling ill.

By JackWhack — On Aug 27, 2012

The Def Leppard song “Hysteria” refers to the all-encompassing feeling of thrills of chills when you are in love. This is one of my favorite songs, and every time that I fall for someone new, I experience this sort of hysteria whenever they are near.

This type of hysteria wears off after awhile, though. Once you get used to someone, being near them becomes comforting rather than thrilling.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 25, 2011

Freud's theories seems to have been widely embraced due to their preoccupation on sex and orgasm. He basically made sex the center of all human motivation and libido, when this is simply not the case. I prefer Jungian thought, which recognizes that there is much more to humans than merely sex. Freud would have little to say regarding addiction to sex, but would probably see it as a positive thing.

By SilentBlue — On Feb 22, 2011


I believe that hysteria in the workplace can have adverse effects on the productivity of the workplace as a whole due to creating an environment of fear and stifled creativity. People suffering from hysteria should be given a break from work so that they can actively pursue counseling and reparation.

By patrickbk — On Nov 03, 2008

how does a person suffering with hysteria affect other's health and safety in the workplace?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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