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hysteria (hĭstĕrˈēə), 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(from Greek hystera, uterus; in ancient times, hysteria was believed linked to uterine disease), a disease classified as a neurosis and characterized by various disturbances of the psyche, the motor sphere, sensitivity, and internal organs.

According to I. P. Pavlov, hysteria develops as a result of the predominance of the processes of excitation in higher nervous activity over the processes of inhibition; cortical regulation of subcortical excitation is insufficient, and the second signaling system is weak in comparison with the first. The weakness of the cortex and the predominance of the first signaling system determine the chaotic nature of the reactions, their emotivity, impulsiveness, and suggestibility. Many life stimuli are excessive for such persons and produce the extension of inhibition from the cerebral cortex to its subcortical areas, thus causing a hypnotic state of varying depth. Hysteria is manifested in a hysteric personality, hysterical attacks, and hysterical disturbances of consciousness and of the functions of internal organs.

The hysteric personality is characterized by mental instability, superficial and excitable emotionality, capriciously changeable tendencies, and the capacity for completely contradictory behavior. Hysterics combine inferiority feelings with the need to attract attention, role-playing, and showing-off; they take the imaginary for the real and subordinate reason and will to emotional impulse. Their attitude to the environment swings wildly and they change from sympathy to antipathy instantaneously.

Disturbances of mental activity in hysteria are expressed by psychotic phenomena—a state of increased irritability, depression, motionlessness, and indifference—and by disturbances of the will (most often in the form of abulia). In many cases there are paroxysmal seizures, or hysterical attacks, which are usually triggered by some irritant and accompanied by violent manifestations of emotion—weeping, cries, motor excitement, and falling—and by external manifestations of disturbances of consciousness, or loss of consciousness. Such attacks may be mistaken for epileptic ones, but they never entail any serious bodily harm or any disturbances that last in the postattack state.

Disturbances of sensitivity in hysteria involve precisely half the body, and sometimes a single extremity or the face. Also observed are functional (reversible) disturbances of movement and speech, blindness, deafness, gastrointestinal disturbances, and disorders of the cardiovascular system, the respiratory organs, and the genitourinary organs. In serious cases there is dimming of consciousness accompanied by vivid visual hallucinations and imaginal delirium.

Hysteria can be prevented by proper rearing by the family, school, and community organizations.

Treatment calls for psychotherapy, which helps the patient form a conscious and critical attitude toward himself and his place in objective reality, provides incentives to strengthen social bonds and to participate in activities with others, and develops attachments and responsiveness to people. Also used in treatment are occupational therapy, mental and will-power training, tranquilizers, and physiotherapy.

Ability to work is not impaired in hysterics, as a rule.


Gannushkin, P. B. Izbrannye trudy. Moscow, 1964.
Davidenkov, S. N. Newozy. Leningrad, 1963.
Nevrozy. Edited by V. N. Miasishchev. Petrozavodsk, 1956.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A type of neurosis characterized by extreme emotionalism involving disorders of somatic and psychological functions; the conversion type is associated with neuromuscular and sensory symptoms such as paralysis, tremors, seizures, or blindness, whereas the dissociative displays disorders of consciousness such as amnesia, somnolence, and multiple personalities.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a mental disorder characterized by emotional outbursts, susceptibility to autosuggestion, and, often, symptoms such as paralysis that mimic the effects of physical disorders
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The horse game, the source of much of the material of Hans' fantasy is now directly linked in a causal fashion to the emergence of the anxiety hysteria. Hans' reply stands at the beginning of a brief dialogue between Hans and his father revolving around the question of the moment of origin of Hans' phobia.
What "speaks" here is not the intentional indication of the factual origin of the anxiety hysteria, but rather the material at its disposal, the "connections," with which it works.
Accordingly, the fantasy scenarios engendered by the anxiety hysteria gradually develop into a linguistic system that both takes up the anxiety in its mobilization and, hence, also secures a certain independence