What Are the Symptoms of Hysteria?

Susan Abe

The term "hysteria" is also known as "conversion disorder" since the condition was defined and re-categorized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. The condition refers to the manifestation of psychological distress through physical symptoms for which no physical disease can be found. In other words, the brain "converts" psychological distress to physical disability. Symptoms of hysteria often include paralysis, blindness or an inability to speak. A traumatic event usually precedes the appearance of symptoms of hysteria.

Difficulty with balance and unsteady ambulation are common symptoms of hysteria.
Difficulty with balance and unsteady ambulation are common symptoms of hysteria.

In addition to the absence of physical causes to account for the physical complaints, there must also be an absence of secondary gain involved in the situation to warrant a conversion disorder diagnosis. Secondary gain refers to monetary, emotional or relational benefits afforded the patient while disabled that would not be available if the patient was fully healthy. This important distinction separates hysteria from other conditions such as malingering or factitious disorder in which the patient intentionally deceives others about his or her condition. Hysteria is an unconscious psychological disorder. The patient is not "faking" his or her symptoms of hysteria.

Originally, the term finds its roots in ancient Greek, where "hyster" refers to the womb, or uterus. The condition was fairly aptly named, as hysteria most often affects young women between the start of menses and their mid-20s. There is often a traumatic precipitating event and so conversion disorder might be considered a type of post-traumatic stress response. Some authorities consider it a response to depression or overwhelming anxiety. A number of symptoms of hysteria appear to be symbolic expressions of the patient's psychological condition.

Motor skills, the sense organs or the means of communication are often affected in hysteria. Involvement of motor skills ranges from complaints of numbness on one end of the scale to total paralysis on the other. Symptoms reported between these two extremes include loss of coordination, difficulty with balance and unsteady ambulation. Sense organ involvement includes complaints of visual difficulties, blindness, deafness and even loss of the ability to feel pain. Symptoms of hysteria involving communication include muteness, an inability to swallow, deafness or a near-coma type of sleep for extended periods of time.

Treatment of hysteria depends upon the patient's acceptance of the diagnosis. If the patient considers the diagnosis to indicate deceit on his or her part, acceptance may be difficult. Psychotherapy, group therapy or counseling is often recommended to assist the patient in dealing with the precipitating traumatic event. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety agents may be prescribed to treat underlying depression or anxiety.

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