Charcot's Theory Of Hysteria

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In the early years of psychotherapy, Jean-Martin Charcot was one of the first pioneers to re-conceptualize the historical understanding of the ethology of hysteria. The term stems from the Greek word ὑστέρα, meaning uterus, and made reference to a woman with ungovernable emotional excess due to a “wandering womb.” Jean-Martin Charcot hypothesized that hysteria was psychological rather than physiological in nature. This was a revolutionary historical event, since up until that time the symptoms of hysteria had been thought to stem from outside, or exogenous, variables. For example, during the second century a physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia believed that hysteria was caused by displacement of the uterus, hence the “wandering womb” reference (Adam, 1856). Soranus of Ephesus opposed Aretaeus’s view of a wandering uterus, arguing that “hysterical suffocation” was caused by inflammation. Later, Galen of Pergamon hypothesized that it was caused by substances being retained in the uterus (Gilman, King, Porter, Rousseau, and Showalter, 1993, p. 42). Thus, Charcot’s innovative suppositions shifted the understanding of psychological trauma to a new paradigm. One of Charcot’s students, Sigmund Freud, concluded that the cause of hysteria was related to the patient’s emotional life as a result of a traumatic event. Although the cause of hysteria remained psychological, Freud’s attention was on the origins of internal deficit and how someone reacted internally to external events. There was a lack of focus on the impact that a traumatic event had on an individual, with Freud stating that the propensity for exhibiting traumatic symptoms was ingrained in a person since childhood. During the same time period, Pierre Janet, a pioneering French psychologist working on what’s now known as traumatic memories and dissociation, believed that the events that occurred in a person’s life impacted how their personality developed and the behaviors they exhibited. In the 1940s, anthropologist and psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner studied the so-called “traumatic neuroses of war,” or cognitive reenactments that are now referred to as flashbacks. In many ways, Kardiner can be thought of as an unknown pioneer in the philosophical
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