That’s Hysterical! A Brief History of Anxiety

When we find something especially funny, we’ll often refer to it as being “hysterical.” Similarly, if someone, especially a woman, is being overly emotional (especially when it comes to crying), she will often be referred to as “hysterical.”

Many people know the origin of the term “hysteria” comes from the term “hystera,” meaning uterus. This was, of course, because it was believed that women were much more prone to (or only women were prone to) the condition known as hysteria. Basically it was believed that the uterus would wander around the body causing feelings of intense anxiety and distress. Plato described hysteria as the condition of the uterus “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing distress.”

The cure for hysteria? Sex. Lots of sex.

Then, in Renaissance Europe, women accused of hysteria were also often accused of witchcraft. And from then we get into the Victorian period, where the famous treatments of hysteria come about. That’s right, vibrators. Victorian doctors believed that the uterus needed to be calmed or “unwound” from its tension, and once again, sex was the best solution. If sex wasn’t an option (if a woman wasn’t married, for example), doctor-guided masturbation was the key. And thus, the vibrator was invented to assist women in their hysteria.

After the Victorian period, “hysteria” became a bit more gender neutral. Some would trace this back to the American Civil War and the development of PTSD in men who fought in the war. This was often referred to as “nervousness” or “nerve weakness”. Shell shock, a term coined to describe the reactions of soldiers to the horrors of the First World War, also ties into this history of anxiety or “hysteria.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that “anxiety disorder” was coined as a term, but much of “hysteria” clearly ties into this disorder. This is also when Prozac was released on the market (1987) as one of the first anti-depressants, which could also be used to treat anxiety disorders. Ironically, one side effect of Prozac is that it can cause a reduced libido, so no more vibrators for treatment needed!

But how did we get from hysteria, the condition of the uterus wandering around the body, to today, where “hysterical” is something funny? My best guess is that it has to do with the fact of how funny something is. If something is “hysterical,” it’s something that is making you cry with laughter, barely able to breathe. Much like traditionally diagnosed “hysteria” would likely lead to crying and difficulty breathing–common symptoms of panic attacks.

So why discuss this? Well, like my last post may have shown, I’m very interested in this history of words, terms, and phrases. Anxiety is the most common mental illnesses (in America, at least), impacting 18% of the adult population. That’s almost 1 in 5 people. Odds are good, you know someone and/or are related to someone with an anxiety disorder. So why not learn about the history of perceptions of the condition?


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