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Religion & Culture | Hysteria: A psychological disorder with 'spiritual' roots

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Depiction of the Salem witch trials (1692 and 1693), which was known as the most widespread religion panic in United States history.

Philosopher Alan Watts once said, "You did not come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."

Watts' words affirmed our connectedness to the universe by virtue of our very composition. We are infused with energy. In the article, The New Science: We Are Made of Energy, Not Matter, (, we learn that every cell in our body is a miniature battery. Each cell has 1.4 volts of energy ... [and] a total voltage of 700 trillion volts of electricity in your body when multiplied by [our] 50 million.

Our cells allow us to receive and also emit energy.

This energy is what the Chinese call 'chi'.

Indian philosophers call it 'Shakti. In psychological terms this energy is referred to as 'libido' or drive.

Now, what is the relationship of this energy to the psychological order called hysteria?

Notably, this synergistic energy is somatic, physiological, psychological and environmental in its origin. This drive manifests in our survival instincts and is also the source of every thought, emotion and action - good and bad.

Mindfulness, fulfilment and good health are determined by how well we use this drive.

This drive must be fully expressed through our creative endeavours and overall pursuits in life.

When suppressed by our peers, our superiors and social institutions, such as the family and religion, this drive or energy is turned inward leading to aberrant psychological disorders.

Fits of hysteria are marked by some of the following: irritability, intolerance, severe cramps and heaviness in the limbs, palpitations, suffocation, crying, laughing or crying for reasons unknown, clenched teeth and other inexplicable behavioural patterns. These patterns are contagious and it is not uncommon to see groups of people displaying the same oddities. These hyper-emotional contagions are due to what is called mass suggestion.

Suggestibility is the degree to which we fall victim to ideas and beliefs that are not our own. Some people are more suggestible than others, as the hypnotist will tell us.

Mass suggestibility is very real because, as individuals, we tend to adopt the behaviours of the group to which we belong.

Let's recall some famous cases of mass suggestion:

The Tanzania laughing epidemic of 1962: In late January at an all-girls school in Kashasha, Tanzania, three girls began to laugh uncontrollably. They didn't stop, even when disciplined by their teachers. The number rose to more than 90 students lasting just over two weeks causing the school to close. The laughing later spread through the village. It is said to have mysteriously stopped.

The dancing plague of 1518: A woman in Strasbourg, France, began dancing in the street. There was no musical accompaniment. It was reported that she was subsequently joined by over 400 women, many dying from exhaustion.

And in 2012 mass hysteria broke out at an upstate school in New York when 12 teenage girls displayed Tourette's-like syndrome.




In fact, there are hundreds of reported cases of mass hysteria.

Interestingly, most of these cases involved women. But why? In medieval times, and even today, mass hysteria was attributed to satanic possession. However, this phenomena can be explained without giving credence to theological folly.

The reasons are valid and worth further examination. What we know is that victims share like beliefs and are equally imprisoned by the same anxieties and fears.

Psychologist Steven Diamond, PhD, stated: "When cutting-edge medical science fails to explain such mystifying phenomena, when all possible physiological and environmental causes have been carefully ruled out and systematically eliminated, there remains only one clear scientific conclusion: Behold and be humbled by the awesome power of psychology. And of the unconscious" (Return of the Repressed: Is Mysterious Outbreak of Hysteria Proving Freud Right? Psychology Today, February 5, 2002).

But it is Taoism, more than any other pedagogy, that delves into our energy composition. It teaches that the Yin energy that is feminine is characterised by softness, patience, intuition, sensitivity, creativity and fecundity. This principle complements the Yang or masculine elements of aggression, impatience, cognition and rationality, strength and force.

The sensitivity characteristic of Yin is what concerns us. The empathic make-up defines all psychics, sensitives and mediums - mostly women.

Not that men are not suggestible, sensitive or mediumistic. According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, all males have some degree of the feminine principle that he called anima. He uses the term animus to describe the masculine component in women.

That said, women remain overwhelming more religious, spiritual and sensitive by virtue of their very nature. That men are found at the helm - the leader of religious movements of yesterday and today is solely due to the patriarchical make up of societies.

What is certain is that this energy (libido), this emotional drive must be allowed expression. When this psychic energy (philosophically defined as the feminine principle) is stifled as it has been in women throughout the ages, the consequences are dire. Hysteria is just one manifestation of suppressed energy.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity, and The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby