Hysteria as a disease has played a pivotal role in the social understanding and treatment of women and dates as far back as 1900 BC. The word hysteria is derived from the Greek word, "hysteron," which means "womb." Initially, the disease was thought to be caused by the wandering of the womb throughout the female body. From the disorder's first conception, its symptoms have consisted of a myriad of psychological and physical ailments, including amnesia, paralysis, nervous tics, loss of speech, sleep-walking, hallucinations and convulsions.
An significant theme in the history of hysteria has been the connection between the disorder and female sexuality. A second-century physician, Galen, asserted that the cause of hysteria was sexual deprivation. From the beginning of the renaissance onwards, a common cure for the disease was to induce a hysterical paroxysm or orgasm by pelvic message. During the Victorian era, many women went to their physicians to be given this cure for hysteria. The overwhelming demand for pelvic message led to the invention of the vibrator. Showing the influence of hysteria in society, the vibrator was marketed an essential home appliance and was sold in the Sears catalog years before the first vacuum cleaner.
During the Victorian era, it was thought that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, an unsurprising conclusion given the disorder's long list of symptoms. The number of women suffering from hysteria caused it to become a popular topic of research among neurologists and psychologists. One of the significant researchers on the disorder was Jean-Martin Charcot, a French neurolgist working at the famous Salpêtrière hospital. Charcot argued that hysteria was caused by hereditary problems in the nervous system. Charcot used hypnosis as a method for understanding and treating a hysterical illness.
Initially, Freud also used hypnosis, but then moved on to what is referred to the "talking cure." Patients would talk about traumatic events in their life and with the help of the therapist,resolve problems that had been confined to the unconscious. Freud borrowed this psychoanalytic technique from Joseph Breuer, with whom he co-wrote Studies on Hysteria in 1893. That work presented what is perhaps the most famous case study of hysteria, that of Anna O., and formed the basis of Freud's understanding of hysteria.
Today, hysteria is no longer diagnosed as a mental disorder. Its symptoms now belong to a variety of other conditions, including conversion disorder and anxiety. Despite the turn away from hysteria, there is scientific evidence to suggest that the disorder may still exist and that unconscious emotions may prevent proper brain function.