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What is Motor Hysteria?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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Motor hysteria is a form of mass hysteria which involves physical symptoms which spread rapidly in a community with no apparent etiology, a medical term for “cause.” Some notable incidents in history have been accompanied with bouts of mass hysteria, ranging from outbreaks of mysterious illnesses in convents to the Salem Witch Trials, an event which some researchers think was driven by mass hysteria. Motor hysteria can endure for weeks or months until the stress which brings on the hysteria is neutralized, allowing people to return to normal.

Studies on motor hysteria seem to suggest that it is brought on by extreme stress and emotional repression. The longer a group of individuals is together in a stressful situation, the more likely motor hysteria is to develop, unless steps are taken to create an outlet for the stress. All it takes is one person succumbing to stress and developing the early symptoms, and the motor hysteria will begin to spread.

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Loss of motor and sensory function is common in motor hysteria, with people experiencing twitching, spasms, and lack of muscle control. Many people also begin to develop extremely erratic behavior, with many demonstrating histrionics, emotional outbursts which demand attention. Historically, motor hysteria was often attributed to possession by demons or other evil forces, and patients might find themselves subject to inquisition. In other instances, the patients became the leaders of the inquisition, as in the Salem Witch Trials, where young girls used their symptoms as a basis of authority to accuse community members of witchcraft.

Small, isolated communities, schools, convents, and stressful office environments are the most common candidates for an outbreak of motor hysteria. Often, people rally around a single triggering event, which can obscure the motor hysteria until researchers get to the bottom of the situation. For example, children might appear to fall sick after eating a specific food, leading people to believe that food poisoning is the cause, until a pattern emerges to suggest motor hysteria, rather than ordinary illness.

Mass hysteria has long been a topic of fascination for researchers, illustrating the total loss of emotional, physical, and mental control in a large group of people. Sometimes, an outbreak of motor hysteria can be relatively benign; a community may suffer an epidemic of laughing, for example. In other cases, it can become a more serious problem, and historically, motor hysteria sometimes led to tragic consequences, as community members turned on each other in their hysteria and confusion.

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