Mass Hysteria as it Relates to Women

During late-November 2012 in Sri Lanka, several instances of mass hysteria occurred at fifteen different schools, affecting 1,900 students and five teachers. These people were treated for a variety of symptoms including rashes, vomiting, vertigo, and coughing. Soon after, authorities closed down the schools for three days, and cases of hysteria were reported in other parts of the country as well.

This word hysteria was introduced circa 1610, and it is derived from the Greek word “Hysterikus,” meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb.” Therefore, the prefix, “Hystera” means “womb.” Now, hysteria is defined as a state in which one’s emotions (such as fear) are so strong that a person may behave in an uncontrolled fashion.

Hysteria was often defined as a neurotic condition, particular to women, and was thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. By 1939, it had acquired a new connotation of describing something very funny (hysterical), as hysteria was often accompanied by notions of uncontrollable fits of laughter. Hysteria was also used to explain a sexual illness diagnosed by (mainly) male doctors that sought to further understand the female condition; however, their efforts proved ineffective.

Introduced by Freud’s doctrines as a condition predominantly affecting women, the Conversion Theory considers wide-scale presence of hysteria to be a psychiatric disorder that “may arise from stressful situations” during which time anxiety is converted into physical symptoms including numbness, blindness, paralysis and fits without definable organic causes.

Originally, the term ‘hysteria’ was used to describe any generic behavior of a woman but began to be perceived as a mental malady. For example, in 1692-1693 in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of girls by the names of Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard experienced fits “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to affect” (Wikipedia). The result of these collective fits was the infamous Salem Witch Trials. During this scare, twenty-five people were hanged for witchcraft.

These cases of hysteria occur all over the world, almost solely in women. The connection between how many people believe that women are more susceptible to hysteria and the mentality that women are more submissive and weaker coincide because society still leads people to believe that males are the solely dominant figure. As seen with the 2012 Sri Lanka case, the Hysteria outbreak cannot actually be linked to any organic factor. Therefore, the origin of these outbreaks are unknown. More scientific research needs to be done before we pinpoint uterus dysfunction as the culprit of hysteria, but we can safely assume that not every strong emotion a woman feels is linked to a psychological disorder.