The Fascinating History of 'Hysteria'

What was 'hysteria' and how was it treated? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

What was 'hysteria' during the Victorian Era and how was it treated? This is a biggie, so I'll cover it in two parts.

The only accurate definition of what hysteria was, was "a misdiagnosis."

As I see it, hysteria fell under two main categories. The first, legitimate maladies, grossly misdiagnosed. Epilepsy was a huge one, diabetes complications, and every imaginable psychiatric disorder we now recognize, from post-partum depression to schizophrenia.

Then there was the other category of "hysterics." They were not faking that they felt bad, but they were caught up in some serious psychological gameplay.

"Hysterics" that were not suffering genuine disease were typically young white western women of middle to upper class. They were unmarried, unemployed, and very likely, really bored.

Think back to the Salem Witch Trials. Young girls convinced themselves that the devil was pinching them and they'd fall down writhing in front of the entire town, wailing and screaming. And they were so convincing that ninteen innocent people were hanged for it. Those little girls weren't evil, but by the end they believed it themselves.

Hysteria feeds itself, like depression and anxiety do.

Like those 17th century girls, Victorian girls were living in a restrictive society, they were expected to be graceful and quiet and had no purpose. Meanwhile, they read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and fantasized about all this drama and romance, it was becoming increasingly clear their lives would not contain.

Who hasn't hammed up a cold or a belly ache for a little attention? Back then, Mother, who was usually distant, drew closer, wringing her hands because her daughter's black moods (what we now call "being a teenager) were disturbing. It might be the first bit of real attention that girl had ever gotten. So she hammed it up a little more, a bit louder of a moan, a bit more frenzied punching of a pillow, eventually convincing herself, like the Salem girls did, that what was happening was real. Especially since most symptoms of that hysteria were hard to quantify: you had to take the girl's word for it.

Then doctors, drama, worry, love, adventure, and most of all, the people she had been brought up to never question, her elders and men of learning, told her she was correct in her behavior. That she did in fact have a legitmate disease and they were going to do everything they could (shower her with attention) to make her better.

Curing Hysteria:

The current fashion now is to believe that "hysteria" was cured by doctors using newly developed electronic vibrators to stimulate women to "hysterical paroxysm" which would realign the nerves of the genital organs and clear them of congestion.

Hot, sexy hysterical paroxysm.

I have no doubt this happened, in certain places, to certain women. Because it was the finest era of quack medicine the western world has ever seen. But it wasn't standard practice.

The things was, everyone knew what orgasms were, and everyone knew ladies had them. Now, they were completely off on what caused them, most doctor's thought the clitoris was this puny vestigial penis that served only to cause unhealthy irritation. Many doctors thought the mere presence of semen against the cervical wall was what triggered climax in women, and that conception could not occur without it.

At any rate, they didn't want women having orgasms outside of their husband's beds. There were health debates about ladies riding streetcars, worrying that all that bumping would "congest" their genitals.

Vibrators (also called Faradizers, Galvinizers, or simply "The Hammer") were used. But not usually in a sexy way.

Most doctors believed there were points along the spinal column that corresponded with the genitalia (and every other part of the body). The vibrations were applies to the spine, or to the stomach above the womb, or directly to the brain. Water jets were also used in much the same way.

Some doctors would shake a lady's naught bits for the sake of her health but he would have been a fringe practitioner, of which there were many.

The most agreed upon cure was to remove a girl/woman from her home environment. Take her to a health-spa/hospital that they had in those days, or to your country house, to the shore (again, a disease of the wealthy). There were lots of subsequent treatments, lots of oatmeal and brisk daily walks, and the girls felt better. But attention, purposeful regime, exercise, and healthy eating, well, that will aid any emotional disorder.

Marriage also tended to "cure" hysteria (the kind born of the bored rich lady) because now she had some power (over her household) and purpose in her life. Though the doctors of the time thought it was because she was getting right proper lovin' to tend to that crazy crazy uterus.

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