The term comes from the Greek hystera simply meaning ‘womb’. Hysteria was originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. Hippocrates believed that the womb lived as a separate animal in the female and that all female irrational behaviour was caused by the uterus moving about.

Therefore, in medicine, the term has long been used to mean a mental disorder characterized by emotional excitability without an organic cause.

‘The typical cases of hysteria cited by Freud thus involved a moral conflict—a conflict about what the young women in question wanted to do with themselves. Did they want to prove that they were good daughters by taking care of their sick fathers? Or did they want to become independent of their parents, by having a family of their own, or in some other way? I believe it was the tension between these conflicting aspirations that was the crucial issue in these cases. The sexual problem—say, of the daughter’s incestuous cravings for her father—was secondary (if that important); it was stimulated, perhaps, by the interpersonal situation in which the one had to attend to the other’s body. Moreover, it was probably easier to admit the sexual problem to consciousness and to worry about it than to raise the ethical problem indicated. In the final analysis, the latter is a vastly difficult problem in living. It cannot be “solved” by any particular maneuver but requires rather decision making about basic goals, and, having made the decisions, dedicated efforts to attain them.’

– Szasz. T.S. 1974. The Myth of Mental Illness New York, United States: Harper Perennial p. 218