Hysteria is generally considered to be a neurosis - an unconscious affliction that produces the appearance of disease. Its physical symptoms are manifested for the sake of personal advantage, usually unconsciously. Hysterical symptoms are characteristic of extroverted neurotics.
Hysteria today is no longer an accepted medical diagnosis, but the word lives on as a colloquial way to deem someone out-of-control and irrational.
With a genealogy that can be traced back to ancient Egypt, hysteria can arguably be understood as Western civilisation’s first conceptualisation of mental illness. Ancient physicians attributed erratic female behaviour to spontaneous movement of the womb, with which the disorder shares its Latin root. The hallmark behavior of a hysteric – overly emotional, out-of-control, irrational – was uniquely characteristic of women and linked directly to their anatomy. Beginning in the late-1800s and continuing into the mid-20th century, doctors treated women’s mental disorders by removing the uterus, ovaries or clitoris that were believed to be the problem. Sigmund Freud, whose ideas dominated Western psychology for much of the 20th century, also promoted a theory of hysteria that was ultimately grounded in physiology. He believed hysteria to be an expression of stunted, immature sexual development. The uncontrolled behaviour of the hysteric served as an outlet for frustrated sexual impulses that had failed to develop beyond infantile desires for parental affection.