hysteria (hĬstĕr´ēə), in psychology, a disorder commonly known today as conversion disorder, in which a psychological conflict is converted into a bodily disturbance. It is distinguished from hypochondria by the fact that its sufferers do not generally confuse their condition with real, physical disease. Conversion disorder is usually found in patients with immature, histrionic personalities who are under great stress. Women are affected twice as frequently as men. Symptoms, which are largely symbolic and which relieve the patient's anxiety, include limb paralysis, blindness, or convulsive seizures. The specific physical disorder usually does not correspond to the anatomy; e.g., an entire limb may be paralyzed rather than a specific group of muscles. The person may also appear to be unconcerned about the illness, a condition French psychiatrist Pierre Janet called la belle indifference (1929). At the end of the 19th cent., great advances were made in the understanding and cure of hysteria by the recognition of its psychogenic nature and by the use of hypnotism to influence the hysteric patient, who is known to have a high degree of suggestibility. The Austrian physician Josef Breuer, the French psychologists J. M. Charcot and Pierre Janet, and Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud were pioneers in the investigation of hysteria through hypnosis. Freud concluded that hysterical symptoms were symbolic representations of a repressed unconscious event, accompanied by strong emotions that could not be adequately expressed or discharged at the time. Instead, the strong effect associated with the event was diverted into the wrong somatic channels (conversion), and the physical symptom resulted. Psychoanalysis has had reasonable success in helping patients suffering from conversion disorder.

See A. Roy, ed., Hysteria (1982); E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Hysteria: Selected full-text books and articles

Studies on Hysteria By Josef Breuer; Sigmund Freud; James Strachey; James Strachey Basic Books, 1957
Hysteria By Christopher Bollas Routledge, 2000
Hysteria from Freud to Lacan: The Splendid Child of Psychoanalysis By Juan-David Nasio; Susan Fairfield; Susan Fairfield Other Press, 1998
FREE! The Foundations of Personality By Abraham Myerson Little , Brown, and Co, 1921
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "Hysteria, Subconsciousness, and Freudianism"
The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries, 1856-1900 By Ernest Jones Basic Books, vol.1, 1953
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of hysteria begins on p. 222
The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry By Henri F. Ellenberger Basic Books, 1970
Librarian’s tip: "Model Clinical Pictures: Hysteria" begins on p. 141
Trauma and Recovery By Judith Lewis Herman Harper Collins (Basic Books), 1997
Librarian’s tip: "The Heroic Age of Hysteria" begins on p. 10
Psychological Concepts and Dissociative Disorders By Raymond M. Klein; Benjamin K. Doane Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Cerebral Aspects of Hysteria and Multiple Personality"
What Does a Woman Want? By Serge André; Susan Fairfield Other Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of hysteria in multiple chapters
Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism By Mary Jacobus Columbia University Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "Anna (Wh)O.'s Absences: Readings in Hysteria"
Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts, 1830-1890 By Jenny Taylor; Sally Shuttleworth Clarendon Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Section III, Chap. 2 "The Uterine Economy: Hysteria"
Women and Mental Health By Elizabeth Howell; Marjorie Bayes Basic Books, 1981
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "The Hysterical Personality: A 'Woman's Disease'"
Classics in Psychology By Thorne Shipley Philosophical Library, 1961
Librarian’s tip: "Lecture VII: On Six Cases of Hysteria in the Male Subject" begins on p. 370
The Nature of Hysteria By Niel Micklem Routledge, 1996
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