Understanding hysteria

Published On: January 25, 2017 12:25 AM NPT By: Prasansha Rimal

The subconscious mind takes control of body resulting in hysteria symptoms like crying, screaming and fainting
Mahakali Secondary School in Dhading was shut down for several days in June 2016 after a number of its students fainted. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon mass hysteria.

The problem of mass hysteria is not uncommon in Nepal. Schools in Khotang, Lamjung, Baitadi and Parbat have all been witness to mass hysteria in the past few years.

Cases of mass hysteria are common all over the world. A school in northern Malaysia had to shut down temporarily to handle a case of mass hysteria in April 2016. In 2012, LeRoy High School in New York also made headlines when students started developing strange tics and verbal outbursts with no obvious underlying cause.

Several cases of mass hysteria, including ‘Dancing Mania’ that occurred in Roman Empire in 1518 and ‘June Bug Epidemic’ in a US textile industry in 1962, have been documented. So what is mass hysteria?

The term hysteria is derived from the Greek word ‘hystera,’ meaning uterus or womb. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first to identify this disorder. In ancient Greece, it was believed that a wandering and discontented uterus caused that dreaded female ailment of excess emotion.

Hysteria is an old fashioned term for psychological disorder characterized by conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization) or a change of self awareness (such as fugue state or selective amnesia).

Mass hysteria (also known as collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear. 

In medicine, the term is used to describe spontaneous manifestation (production of chemicals in the body) of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person. 

Mass hysteria is a mental illness caused by fear and stress. The subconscious mind takes control of body and hysteric symptoms like crying, screaming and fainting occur. It is basically outburst of emotions and stress. An individual under hysteric attack remains unaware of what is happening and cannot recall the incident afterward.

Neuroscience Society of Nepal had conducted a workshop with students in Dhading in January 2016, after mass hysteria was reported in one of the schools. Students were not informed about the program but instead were told pop singer Nabin Kumar Bhattarai will be performing. This was done to make them feel at ease while answering a set of questionnaires.

Students were taught about mass hysteria through drama. The idea was to spread awareness about mass hysteria and teach school-going children about brain anatomy.

The drama focused on how hysteria could be tackled and how people can prevent it from spreading, apart from causes of mass hysteria and differences between hysteria and other forms of medical condition.

But this is now how hysteria is treated in Nepal. Often help from shamans is sought. Animal sacrifices are made and rituals are performed to please gods and goddesses.

Nepalis in rural areas believe that evil spirits and repressed sexual desire in females result in mass hysteria and the cure is sought through ritual performance and marriage.

But this is not the real cause of hysteria in females. Girls are required to keep their stress and emotions bottled up. Young teenagers at puberty stage suffer more. Bodily changes, including hormonal changes, frighten them at this stage. 

As teenagers have little knowledge about what is going on in their body and are unable to share their problems with others this results in fear and then to hysteric symptoms. But what causes fear and stress? It can be as simple things as competition in school, relationship problem and social pressure. Thus a student could display symptoms by fainting, screaming, crying, outburst of verbal sentences and vomiting. A person becomes normal as soon as these symptoms disappear.  

Mass hysteria is commonly seen within the same social circle. A student doesn’t do homework due to lack of electricity at home, she shares this problem with her friends.

Then those friends also share the same stress. And when that student starts showing hysteric symptoms, it also starts affecting her friends. The link between the student and her friends is purely psychological and emotional. The exact cause of mass hysteria, however, is still unknown.

There is a high chance of suffering from mass hysteria if the community is close to a person showing hysteric symptoms. When it happens in one school, students of another school start developing fear as they are unaware of the cause and believe it to be inflicted by evil spirits. In reaction and fear, they too start showing hysteric signs. 

When a person shows signs of hysteria, they should not be asked questions about it because it only adds to their fear. It should rather be treated with psychological counseling. Professional help is not even needed in many cases. 

According to Dr. Sunil Dhungel and Dr. Barun Mahat, associate professors at Nepal Army Institute of Health Science, hysteria can lead to depression if not treated on time. When a person with hysteria is later told about symptoms, s/he can develop fear and it can eventually lead to anxiety and depression.

Experts note that if a person exhibits certain kind of consciousness about their body while passing out, it can be called hysteria. But this is not the case with other illnesses.

Patients of epilepsy, a neurological disease, also faint but they often tend to urinate and lose control of their bowels.

Mass hysteria can result in serious mental illnesses. But the Ministry of Health does not seem to have special programs to treat it nor is there reliable data on mass hysteria. It is time to spread awareness about this illness, which many think is real, but which in reality is all in the head. 

The author is with Republica’s Gennext bureau

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