What is Anxiety Hysteria?

Mary McMahon

Anxiety hysteria is psychological condition which combines an anxiety disorder with a conversion disorder. This diagnosis is not frequently used in modern psychology, primarily due to changing views about mental illness and mental states. Historically, anxiety hysteria was viewed as a “female” disorder, and used to illustrate the weakness of females. Many psychologists today disagree with this characterization of women, and they prefer to use less charged terms in diagnosis.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by high levels of phobia and fear.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by high levels of phobia and fear.

The concept of anxiety hysteria was popularized by early 20th century psychoanalysts, who provided examples of a number of patients to support the diagnosis. Notably, these patients were usually female, such as Freud's famous “Anna O.” While the components of this condition are both valid diagnoses in modern psychotherapy, it is unusual to hear the term “anxiety hysteria” today, and indeed the term “hysteria” is extremely rare in diagnosis, due to its implications.

Anxiety disorders occur frequently among the general population.
Anxiety disorders occur frequently among the general population.

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A conversion disorder is a psychological disorder which creates physical symptoms, typically of a neurological nature. The patient may experience paralysis, for example, or loss of motor function. A diagnosis of conversion disorder is generally arrived at only after careful inspection to rule out potential physical causes for the condition; it is common to consult a neurologist in these cases to ensure that no potentially dangerous signs of underlying disease are missed. Treatments for conversion disorder vary, depending on the individual patient, and they range from psychological therapy to the use of medications.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, considered hysteria as a way that the unconscious mind's tried to protect a person from some stress.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, considered hysteria as a way that the unconscious mind's tried to protect a person from some stress.

Anxiety disorders are extremely common psychological disorders characterized by high levels of anxiety, phobia, and fear. A large number of conditions can be found under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, including things like social anxiety disorder. Treatment for these conditions is usually focused on getting to the underlying cause of the problem and talking it out, and sometimes pharmaceuticals may be used to calm the patient so that he or she can focus on therapy.

Social anxiety disorder is a common condition.
Social anxiety disorder is a common condition.

In the case of anxiety hysteria, psychologists once believed that physical symptoms manifested as a result of an anxiety disorder. Such disorders were once collectively termed “hysteria.” While it is certainly true that some anxiety disorders can be linked with conversion disorder, these two conditions can also appear independently. Patients diagnosed with anxiety hysteria were typically treated as neurotics, and the mode of treatment selected was not always entirely beneficial, sometimes because the patient suffered from a genuine neurological problem which remained unidentified.

Current-day treatments for anxiety disorders focus on cognitive behavioral therapy and on anti-anxiety drugs.
Current-day treatments for anxiety disorders focus on cognitive behavioral therapy and on anti-anxiety drugs.
The term "anxiety hysteria" is rarely cited in contemporary psychiatry.
The term "anxiety hysteria" is rarely cited in contemporary psychiatry.

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