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  Hysteria is a word from ancient Greek which was used purely to describe diseases in women which were thought to be a result of a malfunction of the uterus (hysteron). The Greeks thought that the uterus travelled around the body and pressed on other organs, and that sexual frustration caused the womb to shrink, or to harbour animal spirits which could pass from there to other organs and cause such severe physical disturbances as paralysis or fits.

Freud\'s theories retained the sexual importance of the phenomena in hysteria; he explained pathological symptoms as the result of repressed sexual wishes. The publication in 1885 of Freud and Breuer\'s Studies in Hysteria marked the beginning of psychoanalysis as the exploration of physical conditions which resulted from repressed memories. Although Freud never actually did a definitive study of hysteria, modern psychoanalysts consider that hysteria has its fixed point in the Oedipus Complex, and that it is a condition which uses the defence mechanisms of repression and disassociation to create the symptoms. For Fairbairn, and his version of objects relations theory, hysteria is a result of externalization of the good object and internalization of the bad one.

Hysteria as an illness is still characterized by having physical symptoms which have no physical cause; the cause is psychological, not pathological. The women suffering from hysteria who were Freud\'s middle-class, Viennese patients are often regarded as a social phenomenon which has passed into psychoanalytical history; the phenomenon nonetheless exists in all members of society, of all classes, who seek therapeutic help. MJ

Further reading L. Veith, Hysteria: the History of a Diseas.



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