Nineteen Century Perceptions of Hysteria

Hysteria was a mental disorder that had existed since antiquity. The strange disorder had symptoms ranging from headaches and muteness to sudden paralysis and seizures. It was almost exclusively diagnosed in women, and the common explanation was that these women had become disturbed because they had not fulfilled their prescribed roles as wife and mother. Two nineteenth century doctors, Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud, were fascinated by hysteria, and both developed theories concerning its origins. However, their theories differed greatly. Charcot, a neurologist, argued that a mix of heredity and traumatic experiences caused hysteria. Freud, on the other hand, believed that hysteria was primarily a sexual disorder caused by repressed memories of childhood sexual urges. Both doctors published case studies and gave lectures on hysteria, and by looking at these, it is evident how their theories shaped their methods for treatment. Charcot followed a much more scientific and physiological approach in his treatments, while Freud dove into his patients’ unconscious memories to recover the underlying sexual traumas. Both treatment methods, however, served as major transitions in the field of psychiatry. Charcot legitimized psychiatry as a scientific field by examining hysteria as a biological disease instead of a purely psychological one. Freud’s techniques of questioning and free association became the basis for psychoanalysis, which became the primary psychiatric technique in the early twentieth century.


By Greer Theus

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