The extreme misdiagnosis of hysteria slowed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of two major factors: psychoanalysis and World War I. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis had its origins in hysteria: Freud was Charcot’s student. Along with his research partner Joseph Breuer, Freud was able to explain that the physical manifestations of hysteria were not a result of nerves or disorders in the physical body. Instead, physical symptoms were brought on by mental trauma.
Freud and Breuer are the first to assert that hysteria happens in the mind, not triggered by the physical brain, nervous system or the body. Their book ‘Studies on Hysteria’ (1895) introduced the talking cure as a method of treatment for those afflicted with bouts of hysteria.
Shortly thereafter, World War I produced thousands of men with the same symptoms of hysteria; this time it was called “war neurosis” or “shell shock”. The British army alone claimed 80,000 cases of shell shock by the end of the war. Because the victims of this brand of hysteria were primarily men, the experimentation with treatment changed, varying from electro-convulsive therapy to abstinence. The study of mental trauma and its physical results began to be taken as a serious point of focus.
So what is exactly is hysteria? How can we define it? It is mental instability, fits of rage, anxiety; things that can actually happen when you are suffering from an illness or trauma. In 1980, hysteria was removed from medical texts as a disorder unto itself, but it has remained present as a symptom of disease brought on by specific trauma, both physical and mental.
Although it is now seen as a symptom or result of another illness, it has marked women for centuries: their volatile behaviour, their need to be tamed physically, their weak mental constitution. Although the myths of hysteria are fanciful, its real history not only reveals how it has been a tool to control women’s behaviour and bodies, but shows the frightful neglect mental trauma has received throughout the centuries.