Despite what many people think, this trope was not originally a psychiatric one, but a purely physical one.

The ancient Greeks, who did not anatomize humans, believed that the human uterus ("hystera" in Greek) could [[OrganAutonomy move throughout the body]] to attack the other organs, causing both mental and physical disease. This belief held well into the post-Renaissance era.

By the 19th century the meaning of the word "hysteria" changed, becoming a catch-all for any psychiatric problem a woman could have; listed symptoms covered 50 pages of a Victorian psychology text and included such disparate entries as fainting, nervousness, fluid retention, "a general tendency to cause trouble" and much more. Most Victorian psychiatrists attributed hysteria to a deprivation of sex, and the treatment prescribed is, literally, a masturbation session--or as the Victorians would say--"pelvic massage until the patient as reached a state of Hysterical paroxysm"(which, at the end of the day, inspired the invention of the vibrator. And the prevailing view of it being a strictly medical devices was so strong that vibrators were able to be marketed front and center as a home appliance on the '''Sears catalogue''' right into the 1920s).

In the early 20th century, though, the meaning expanded, as doctors influenced by a misunderstanding of Freud began to see all women's health problems as psychological, "not real", "all in her head", and used the word "hysteria" to describe this belief: even women suffering from cancer or angina found themselves being diagnosed with hysteria. One hospital study done in 1983 - yes, less than thirty years ago - found that 10% of the women referred to the local psychiatric outpatient clinic were actually suffering from heart disease.

Although hysteria is no longer considered by psychiatrists to be a legitimate diagnosis, some older doctors still use it to describe any condition they don't recognize - but generally only in women, and usually only in middle-aged women.