Definition, examples, causes and more

If you’re familiar with the Salem witch trials, you already know something about mass hysteria, also known as mass psychogenic illness.

Mass hysteria refers to an outbreak of unusual and unusual behaviors, thoughts and feelings, or health symptoms shared by a group of people.

People affected by mass hysteria:

  • usually believe something specific triggered their symptoms
  • do not have an underlying health condition that could trigger these symptoms
  • wouldn’t behave that way on a regular basis
  • may share an extreme fear of an exaggerated or non-existent threat

Beyond the events in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, there are many historical examples of mass hysteria. Yet this phenomenon is still happening today, fueled in part by the internet and social media. Still, there’s a good deal of confusion around what that entails.

Below, you will find a detailed explanation of this phenomenon, including the types of mass hysteria, the main signs and the suggested causes.

People commonly use the term “mass hysteria” to describe a rapid spread of panic and fear. But the actual definition is a bit more complex.

Experts widely consider mass hysteria to be a type of conversion disorder or mental health condition that involves physical symptoms brought on by emotional or mental stress.

In sociological terms, it falls into the category of collective behaviors, or the mostly spontaneous actions of a large group of people who influence each other.

A lot experts recognize two distinct types:

  • Mass anxiety hysteria. This guytends to occur in people belonging to the same group or close community, often isolated. This is a sudden tension and other symptoms of anxiety, which “spreads” and disappears quite quickly.
  • Mass motor hysteria. This type tends to appear in people suffering from long-term stress and tension. These are irregular motor (movement) symptoms that gradually move from person to person and often persist for weeks.

Mass hysteria is usually spread verbally and visually. So people who see or hear of someone with symptoms often start experiencing symptoms themselves.

Some experts use the term more loosely to describe any episode of collective fear around a threat that doesn’t actually exist.

Here is an example :

  • News reports and social media posts are beginning to speculate about bioterrorism or a harmful substance in the community.
  • These frequent reports trigger widespread anxiety and concern among people following the updates, even when there is no evidence to support the existence of any real danger.
  • You might start experiencing symptoms “caused” by the threat, especially if you hear of other people showing the same symptoms.

Examples of mass hysteria

Here are some historical and current examples:

  • Choreomania. In the Middle Ages, groups of people across Europe started dancing spontaneously, nonstop, until they were exhausted. Some historians associate this scourge of dancing with a fear of St. Vitus, believed to have the ability to make people dance.
  • Tremors of the hands and arms in students. In the late 1800s, pupils at a number of girls’ schools across Europe exhibited unusual symptoms, including tremors, tremors, convulsions, uncontrollable laughter and even amnesia. These symptoms first started in just a few students, but were soon felt by others. They only appeared in specific classes, or only during the school day, and did not affect students at other times.
  • Vaccine side effects. In 1998, 800 children in Jordan fell ill with what they assumed were side effects from the tetanus and diphtheria vaccinations they received at school. More than 100 of the children went to the hospital for treatment, but medical professionals ultimately determined that most of them had no reaction to the vaccine.
  • Tics. In 2011, a few high school girls from Leroy, New York, began experiencing a number of motor symptoms, including muscle twitching, facial tics, and speech impairment. Before long, others developed the same symptoms. Something similar happened again in 2020 and 2021when people around the world (mostly girls and women) started showing tic-like vocal and motor behaviors – mostly after watching TikTok videos of people living with tics and movement disorders.

Some people have even suggested that the widespread alarm around COVID-19 constitutes a type of mass hysteria, although COVID-19 poses a real and serious threat to health.

The extreme fear of COVID-19 – along with the related stockpiling of medicine, essential household items and food – would more accurately fall into the category of a mass panic as it did not cause the kinds of symptoms typically seen with mass hysteria.

With mass hysteria, the symptoms are very real, even though no real threat or health condition triggers them. It is largely for this reason that experts consider it a type of conversion disorder.

Mass anxiety hysteria usually involves physical symptoms such as:

Mass motor hysteria more often involves symptoms such as:

  • tremors and contractions
  • partial paralysis
  • unstoppable laughter or crying
  • trance states
  • modified speech patterns

Signs of mass hysteria may also involve symptoms associated with a specific feared threat.

Maybe a few people in a community think they’ve been exposed to a toxic chemical. They might suddenly start noticing skin rashes, difficulty breathing, muscle tremors, and other symptoms they would experience after actual exposure to this chemical. Any other members of the community who witness these symptoms could then develop the same symptoms themselves.

Although experts don’t know for sure what causes mass psychogenic illness, a few potential theories have emerged.

Extreme anxiety and stress

Current evidence and theories about the historical events of mass hysteria suggest that stress and anxiety play a role.

Some proof suggests that mass motor hysteria tends to result from continuous stress, while mass anxiety hysteria develops more often in response to sudden and extreme stress. Not all experts make this distinctionalthough they widely accept that ongoing and sudden emotional distress plays a role.

Here are examples of potential triggers:

  • a strict school environment, especially a school away from home
  • community grief or disaster
  • strained school relationships, especially during puberty
  • an isolated community, especially one that follows a strict religious faith and punishes any deviation
  • a pandemic or other threat that presents a risk of major health consequences

The nocebo effect

Experiencing the placebo effect of a drug or treatment means that you feel better because you expect the treatment to work.

With the nocebo effect, however, you might develop adverse symptoms or reactions because you expect to feel them.

‘Fright’

This theory may help explain the symptoms that develop in response to sudden stress.

Knowing that you have to do something that you don’t particularly want to do can cause feelings of stress and worry. This tension can then lead to real physical symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, these symptoms may even offer an unconscious method to dodge the overwhelming situation or feared event.

Of course, that only explains your symptoms. But others facing a similar challenge or ordeal, such as classmates or other members of the community, may face the same tension.

There is no official treatment for mass psychogenic illnesses.

Conversion disorder often improves with therapy, combined with reassurance and compassionate acknowledgment of symptoms. Experts generally recommend treating cases of mass hysteria with a similar approach.

In a nutshell, identifying and taking action to address the underlying source of the stress will usually help alleviate the physical symptoms you are experiencing.

A trained therapist won’t tell you that the symptoms are “all in your head”. They will offer tips for recognizing possible sources of stress and anxiety contributing to these symptoms. Therapy also provides a safe space to learn and practice new methods for dealing with ongoing stress in your life.

Another important step towards recovery? Move away from the epicenter. Getting space from others reporting or discussing shared symptoms can help you find a sense of calm that promotes faster recovery.

It doesn’t just involve physical separation from other people with symptoms. It also means avoiding news stories and social media posts or videos of people experiencing similar effects. Social networks and the Internet will often only intensifies your anxiety and physical symptoms.

Scientific evidence has yet to fully explain mass psychogenic illness, but experts generally agree that it can happen to anyone, especially during times of turbulence, major stress, or emotional upheaval.

Undoubtedly, living through crisis after crisis can fuel the very tension that often underlies mass hysteria. That’s why it’s so essential to seek help for overwhelming or persistent anxiety and to take other steps to protect your emotional and physical well-being.

Reducing the stress in your life can help reduce your chances of living any psychological response to extreme emotional disturbances.


Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her areas of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural science, sex positivity, and mental health, as well as books, books, and more books. In particular, she is committed to helping reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and an adorable recalcitrant cat.

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