Stress Illness in Ancient Times

Stress-related illness is not a new disease.  Greek physicians of the school of Hippocrates (460 –  377 BCE) recognized a disorder characterized by symptoms commonly seen in stress illness today: palpitations, migrating pain, difficulty breathing, a lump in the throat and others.  This was diagnosed exclusively in women and attributed to the uterus wandering around inside the body.  The Greek word for uterus (hystera) gave the disorder its name, hysteria, and this was a common diagnosis through the early 20th century.  The term was finally dropped by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, replaced with conversion disorder.

Because of the lack of evidence for the wandering uterus explanation, even some early physicians wouldn’t accept it.  Soranus of Ephesus, for example, was dismissive of the theory according to historian Roy Porter*.  Soranus was a Greek physician of the 2nd century AD who trained in Alexandria and practiced in Rome.  He was known for his accurate clinical observations and wrote approximately 20 medical books including a general medical book with a chapter on psychological disorders.  His best known work was Gynecology (a translation is available today), a text on obstetrics, gynecology and neonatal medicine that was a standard reference for 1400 years so he was certainly an expert on the uterus.  His work provides a good example of the importance of basing practice on careful observation and scientific evidence.

* Porter, R.  1997.  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind.  A Medical History of Humanity.  Norton.

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