Hysteria to PTSD: Freud’s hypnotism still has some people in a trance

“… [the victim] needs to stop thinking about themselves as nice and harmless because it is the nice and harmless person that is exploitable by the malevolent psychopath and that’s not moral virtue, that’s just weakness, that’s all it is. It’s naivety, it’s the maintenance of a child-like viewpoint of the world that’s past its expiry date … “

JORDAN PETERSON, 2017

Jordan Peterson* is a controversial fellow and it’s not too difficult to work out why. In a nutshell, I appreciate some aspects of his intellect but he misses the mark completely when it comes to understanding emotional aspects of being human and trauma. This is can be seen in comments like those above when he is discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found it quite shocking to hear him speak of someone struggling with trauma as being weak, naive, and childish. My encounters with people with PTSD indicate that they are strong, resourceful, intelligent people who live in a state of hyperviligance. They are constantly in fear that they will meet malevolence around every corner. Further, they don’t think of themselves as nice and harmless. Many are riddled with self-blame and low self-esteem. Peterson’s attitude that trauma victims should toughen up and move on is old fashioned and scientifically unsound. It is highly alarming to see a professional, high-profile psychologist perpetuating myths about PTSD.

Peterson also promotes the view that malevolence can be placed on a scale from relatively insignificant through to extreme. Accordingly, lesser traumatic experiences should be dismissed (Peterson uses the example of child being sexually assaulted by their sibling) and only “extreme” traumatic experiences are of any real significance. Such opinions ignore fundamental aspects of the traumatic experience and promote dissociation.

In the past thirty to forty years, a lot of breakthroughs in research have lead to amazing insights about PTSD. Peterson is in the psychology industry, how could he not be aware of the latest studies? Why is he dispensing out dated psychoanalysis ideas? I can understand why the general public aren’t aware of new research but Peterson has no excuse.

Suggesting PTSD is a sign of weakness, an inability to let go, an indulgence of emotions, or any other belittling connotation can be dangerous because doing so diverts people from getting the support that they really need. Moreover, it constitutes victim-blaming. It appears that Peterson is basing his approach on out-dated information; his views may be seen as aligning with erroneous Freudian psychology.

“Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma.”

Many history books bestow Freud with the glorified title of “father of modern psychoanalysis”. Some even go so far as to praise Freud as the “father of modern psychology”. Both titles suggests that he was intelligent man who should be looked up too. This perception is very misleading. Putting it bluntly, Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma. Nevertheless, his influence was great and many people don’t realise the potential negative consequences of his contributions. The aim of this blog is to explore Freud’s theories so as the errors can be identified and relinquished by community (and Peterson) consciousness.

Firstly, it needs to be explained that Freud never spoke of PTSD. He spoke of hysteria. The term PTSD first became an official diagnosis in 1980 when it was published in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)**. Prior to 1980, individuals who presented with symptoms associated with what we now call PTSD were referred as having hysteria, neurasthenia, shell shock or battle fatigue***. Hysteria is the oldest term and it has an extensive history.

Clarifying what is PTSD

Before getting into the heart of the discussion, it’s useful to give a brief overview of PTSD. Traumatic occurrences that can lead to the condition include events, such as rape, assault, war, domestic violence, abuse, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, or smaller, repeated stressful events, such as being bullied, called names, ostracised, neglected, and witnessing others experience trauma (vicious trauma). Other forms of traumas includes physical illness, birth trauma (i.e. significant medical intervention), intergenerational trauma (i.e. negative experiences passed from parent to child via DNA), and collective trauma (i.e. racism, sexism, climate crisis issues, etc.). More information about trauma can be found here.

PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person, however, the following is a general outline of common traits: confusion, irrationality, anxiety, fear; withdrawal from others; mood swings; heightened startle response to stimuli; low self esteem; feeling hopeless, helpless, guilt, shame, numb, and overall sadness. The impact of PTSD can be crippling and it lowers quality of life tremendously.

Regardless of whether a person has several smaller traumatic events or if they have experienced large ones, the effects of PTSD on the body and mind can be equally difficult. Judgments about what the trauma was from are irrelevant; the impact that trauma has on an individual is what matters.

Brief History of Hysteria to PTSD

The word hysteria stems from the Greek word ‘hysterikos’ which refers to a woman’s uterus. The Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates, believed that a woman’s uterus could wander around her body, thus was the cause of heightened and excessive emotional behaviour. Whenever I read this explanation of hysteria I want to laugh. I’m certain that it must be an ancient joke and us modern people are too daft to see the proverbial tongue in cheek. Surely, it’s the same as contemporary satire about men having two brains: one their head and the other in their sexual organs? The Greek philosophers were phenomenal thinkers of mathematics, science, politics, the arts, and yet they believed that a woman’s womb could wander around her body and that sex was required to keep it in the right place! Hmm, maybe this proof that some men think more with their lower brain than the higher one in their head 🙂

Hysteria’s stigma of being a women’s disease has prevailed for millennium. Notions of “crazy” women who are too “weak” to control their emotions often come to mind. (Peterson’s views echo this notion.) The Middle Ages added to the negative connotations by suggesting hysteria was a sign of demonic possession. Links between witchcraft and hysteria have been identified by some historians.

The Renaissance period was an era in which westernised cultures reflected back upon Ancient Greek philosophers. Therefore, a renewal of the connection between hysteria and the sexual behaviour of women had a resurgence. The moral codes of the renaissance differed from that of Ancient Greek, therefore, the apparent need for women to excrete their sexual juices in order to prevent hysteria caused some dilemmas. Nevertheless, hysteria was predominantly viewed as a woman’s issue that was associated with too much or too little sexual activity.

During the seventh century, some significant developments concerning the understandings of hysteria took place. In particular, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), suggested that there was a connection between the mind and the body which caused symptoms. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) suggested the nervous system played a role, and Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) suggested that the male equivalent of hysteria was hypochondria. Perhaps if psychology had continued to follow these lines of investigation we may have arrived at our contemporary understandings of PTSD sooner? Alas, this did not occur.

“Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can be summarised in his Oedipus theory.”

In the late nineteenth century, the unconscious mind and hypnosis dominated psychology and steered understandings of hysteria back to antiquated premises. It is during this era that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became a prominent figure.

Freud, identified hysteria as being caused by traumatic experiences in one’s childhood which resulted in emotional distress in adulthood. Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can correlates with his Oedipus theory. This theory suggest that all children between the ages of 3-6 unconsciously desire their opposite-sex parent (girls supposedly have the additional problem of penis envy) which causes jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. The tension of these lustful impulses is, according to Freud, traumatic and can lead to adult hysteria. Closely associated with the Oedipus theory is the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which Freud suggests that erectile dysfunction is caused by a man’s desire for a nurturing figure but when they encounter this in a real women they are reminded of their mothers, so therefore need to degrade her to a whore level. To support his views, Freud referred to mythological stories as evidence. Freudian theory goes on to presume absolute authority on how symbols in mythology are to be interpreted and how themes of myths are mirrored in an individual’s life which, of course, is mostly of a sexual nature. Anyone else see any problems with these theories? I’ll unpack some of my interpretations shortly.

Freud’s work then continues with his development of the “talking cure” known as psychoanalysis. The process of psychoanalysis involves allowing a client to talk freeing, in particular, about their dreams and childhood memories whilst the therapist looks for reoccurring themes and/or evidence of a sexual-based dilemmas. The process is founded on the premise that making unconscious desires and lusts conscious through “free association” is cathartic. Interestingly, Freud developed psychoanalysis techniques so as he could help clients who he was not able to hypnotise.

Freudian ideas about psychoanalysis were challenged by his peers but many people still supported them. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Freud, few can argue that his work was highly influential. The spreading of Freudian ideas throughout society occurred through artistic movements such as surrealism, movie references, and the notion of a “Freudian slip of the tongue”. Subsequently, while science rejected most of Freud’s work, pop-culture enabled him to become an icon of how the unconscious mind supposedly works.

“The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology”

As the twentieth century progressed, many other individuals made significant contributions to various aspects of psychology, including Carl Rogers, Burrhus Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov, John Dewey, Donald Winnicott, Aaron Beck, and more. Theories concerned with behaviour, attachment, social issues, developmental factors, education, and cognitive functioning spread the field of psychology into new domains. Intertwined with psychology research were significant changes in politics, culture, and social values. The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology; when returned service men displayed emotional dysregulation like that traditionally only seen in hysterical women, theories of mental health issues were investigated from new perspectives.

Other factors that contributed to developments in psychological research included the consolidation of scientific procedures, the creation of mood and thinking based measurement scales, the invention of brain scanning technology, the discovery of pharmaceuticals that can alter mental and emotional states, and the application of higher ethical standards in research protocols.

A particularly significant development in psychology occurred within the field of neuroscience. This formally began in the 1960’s when the use of the term “neuro + science” was first used. In brief, neuroscience is a specialised area of psychology that focuses on the nervous system and its related influence on the body, brain, and human behaviour. Its findings have shed much light on mental health conditions which previously mystified professionals. Insights into PTSD have been obtained from sources such as brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrocephalogram (EEG) technology.

The human nervous system is a pathway of nerves which runs throughout every part of the body; energy impulses travel along the nervous system and convey messages back and forth between our senses and our brain. The major conduit of this process occurs via what is called our ‘vagus nerve’. The vagus nerve runs down our spine and spreads out like tree branches throughout our abdominal; finer branches spread throughout our limbs. The vagus nerve connects to all major organs, i.e. in our abdominal it connects to our heart, lungs, and stomach, and in our head it connects to our brainstem. Nerve impulses travel throughout our brain which is divided into three main parts; the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The signals between sensory organs and the brain operate via two-way messaging. In other words, sensory organs send messages to the brain and parts of the brain can send messages to parts of the body. PTSD disturbs the functioning of the nervous system.

Contemporary Psychology

While studies of hysteria were prominent around the turn of the nineteenth century, the main focus of contemporary psychology could be said to be trauma. These may be viewed as one and the same thing with the caveat that hysteria was traditionally a woman’s diagnosis whereas PTSD diagnoses are gender neutral. PTSD may slightly differ in how it presents in men and women; however, the cause, discomfort, and curative approaches are the same for all genders.

Many experts such as Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Gabor Matè, Diane Heller, and Brene Brown are actively raising society’s awareness about the implications of unhealed trauma as presented in PTSD symptoms. While each of these aforementioned people approach trauma and healing from slightly different angles, collectively, they are educating society about trauma and the need to address it in a compassionate manner. Further, it is becoming universally accepted that it is not specific aspects of traumatic events that lead to PTSD, rather, it is the imprint that these experiences leave on the physical body.

“Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes”

Contemporary psychology, as supported by neuroscience, views PTSD as a normal response to traumatic experiences. When traumatic or stressful events go beyond an individual’s capacity to cope and/or they don’t have the necessary support to help them recover, then long term PTSD symptoms may develop. Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes – and the energetic charge needs to be released.

Contemporary PTSD treatments are often based on somatic understandings of mind-body connections. In other words, in order to heal trauma symptoms, the physical attributes of a dysregulated nervous system needs to be addressed through embodied approaches so as to improve cognitive functioning. Simultaneously, cognitive processes need to be addressed so as to support the processing of nervous system sensations. Emotions are the key player of the halfway point between bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom trauma therapies.

A person’s ability to overcome adversity without developing PTSD is dependent upon many factors; most prominently, their access to empathetic support. Invalidating a person’s experience and making judgments about them being physically and/or mentally weak, does not help the condition. Moreover, such attitudes are counterproductive and can lead to perpetrating symptoms by promoting shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Freud’s Legacy

On the whole, contemporary psychology research undermines the validity of Freudian theories, from his suggestions of what causes hysteria through to his psychoanalysis practices. It could be argued that contemporary psychoanalysis’ do not follow Freud verbatim, and that attacking Freud when many others have thought along similar lines to him, is a little harsh. In due respect of these considerations, the problem lies in people not taking the time to thoroughly investigate what psychoanalysis is really about (as I didn’t till recently) and the snippets of information that are given constitute a kind of social conditioning that leads to misinformed thinking and behaviour.

It is not possible for Freudian ideas about hysteria and modern theories of trauma to both be correct. They are opposing hypothesises. Ultimately, there is more scientific evidence to support mind-body theories of PTSD.

In the broad scheme of things, I can see how Freud’s theories came about and that they may have even been a necessary step in the process of understanding a PTSD. I can happily give him credit for identifying for that hysteria is based on traumatic childhood experiences that impact adult behaviour. I also appreciate that he saw a link between some physical ailments and the mind and emotions. My homage to Freud ends there. He was only a quarter right in his research and after those points he made several to mistakes and oversights. I therefore question why he is still considered to be such a great man? And do others realise how much he got wrong? Or is Freud’s circle of influence so vast that many great thinkers have accidentally been lead astray? There are many people (including some professionals, like Peterson) who don’t seem to understand how, when, and why Freudian theories are invalid.

Freud’s theories are predominantly based on clinical records of female clients as detailed in a book titled Studies of Hysteria. Despite the fact that there was talk amongst Freud’s academic peers that hysteria could be identified in men, and that Freud himself is reported to have expressed an understanding that hysteria was not exclusively a female condition, his studies were, nevertheless, solely based on women. Putting it simply, Freud’s research is contaminated by a bias population sample. By today’s rigorous scientific standards, his case studies would be rejected and condemned for having weak inductive arguments.

Freud’s premises for the curative elements of his talking cure are highly questionable. In the process of psychoanalysis, the therapist takes on a “superior” role to the “naive” patient so as to explain to them the “reality” of their world in which they are too “sick” to see. The process is based on hypnotic principles of suggestion and submission. (The notion of therapists having “superiority” over “naive” clients is reflected in many of Peterson’s remarks.)

Freud’s adamance of the accuracy of psychoanalysis was primarily based on his personal beliefs, not empirical findings. Such can be seen in Freud’s expressed frustration at his client’s who were, to his mind, not always forthright with admitting their “passions”. Rather than accepting that his clients might be telling their truth and that his theories may be wrong, thus looking for other variables and explanations, Freud maintained the belief that sexual urges were the cause of hysteria regardless of client’s responses. Further, when his client’s reported sexual abuse and incest, he routinely dismissed their claims as being fantasy.

The notion that dreams and projective drawings hold universal insights into the subconscious mind via objective meanings has been critically evaluated in studies and found to hold little merit. (As an art therapist, I’ve gone to extreme lengths to research whether or not such theories hold merit and have come to the conclusion they do not.) While symbols, signs, and motifs may have significance, it is the individual’s interpretation of such that is deemed most important^^. Personal experiences, cultural considerations, social conditioning, religious standing, and several other factors mean that subjective interpretations of unconscious material is predominately more accurate than so-called “objective” projections given by the therapist. (These findings also reflect doubt on Carl Jung’s theories of there being a universal collective consciousness in which there are absolute meanings behind archetypes^^^.)

In my research, I was further surprised to discover that Freud had a serious cocaine habit and he regularly promoted the substance to his clients, which lead to the death of one – they overdosed by following Freud’s prescribed intake because Freud incorrectly believed that humans had a high tolerance level to the substance. In a compassionate mind-frame, I wonder if perhaps Freud’s drug habits are reflective of him self-medicating to address undiagnosed personal trauma? Be that as it may, as I shift between being highly critical of the man and trying to retain an open minded, the bottom line is that I don’t believe Freud is a very good role model. There are too many points to question the accuracy of Freud’s work for him to be entitled to the celebrity status that is bestowed upon his legacy.

“Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies”

Okay, so Freud was a man of his time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing any better. But why are the Jordan Peterson’s of the world still quoting Freudian ideas as facts when there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise? Ironically, it almost appears as though Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies.

Peterson’s approach to psychology echoes Freudian theories and is therefore prone to errors. Specifically, Peterson’s solution to PTSD being that people should simply be less naive and accept that there is malevolence in the world is unjustifiable. His suggestion of preventing PTSD by having individuals toughen up is blatantly disregarding ethical and evidence-based practice. Interestingly, at no point does Peterson recommend that people who are inclined to be malevolent should change, rather, he glorifies malevolent behaviour as being intelligent and suggest the ultimate solution is for “naive” and “child-like” people to change their perspectives. Somatic considerations of PTSD and the challenges of processing of difficult emotions are not mentioned either. I concur with Gabor Mate^ in agreeing that Peterson’s lacks a comprehensive understanding of trauma and his advocation of repressing emotions is unproductive. Sorry to say this Peterson, but I think you are a victim of Freud’s hypnotism.

Conclusion

Prior to investigating the history of PTSD, I had limited understanding of Freud and the potential negative impact that his work has had on shaping contemporary society. Like many, I knew of him as the father of psychoanalysis/psychology and, therefore, assumed the praise he is often given must be substituted. Further, as a lover of surrealistic art styles, I have appreciated his influence in enabling the development of great works like those done by Salvador Dali, James Gleeson, Jeffery Smart, and others. Now, however, my critical evaluation of his work leads me to wonder if he would be better known as the greatest hypnotist of the twentieth century?

Personally, I would like to see some other psychologists get a bit more public attention. In regards to historical characters, I’d vote for Carl Rogers (1902-1987).

“… [Rogers] believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy.”

Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is known as humanistic or client-centred. He believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy. His promotion of building a positive relationship between consumer and therapist has been clinically proven, time and time again, to be the single most important factor underpinning all successful therapy. Further, it aligns perfectly with what is known about the nervous system and human social engagement. Rogers’ theories sit at the heart of trauma-informed practices.

Rogers’ is most renowned for promoting the importance of giving unconditional positive regard to all individuals. Now that is the type of father figure I’d like to look up to!

In reflecting back over the past hundred years of western society I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if psychology, education systems, medical models, politics, media messages, and so forth, echoed more of Rogers’ theories and less of Freud’s? Unconditional positive regard to individuals has the twofold potential of helping people with PTSD recover and preventing some cases of trauma from occurring in the first place.

* Jordan Peterson: How to Heal from PTSD/Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snke9v4S2rU and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaJ5tMoilvM

** The DSM is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association that categories mental health conditions; the current version is referred to as the DSM-5. PTSD is also recognised in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) which is published by the world health organisation. The ICD distinguishes between PTSD and C-PSTD. The latter, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, is a term coined by Judith Herman in her book: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. C-PSTD is distinguishable from PTSD in that it acknowledges continued, ongoing sources of trauma opposed to single traumatic events. Presently, the DSM does not have these two categories. Nevertheless, in simple terms, both PTSD and C-PTSD may be viewed as encompassing the same or similar symptoms and requiring similar healing approaches. More information about the types of trauma can be found here. For the ease of reading, the term PTSD is used exclusively throughout this text; however, it can be inferred that comments about PTSD are equally relevant to C-PTSD.

*** Researching historical terms and definitions for mental illness is an interesting activity in itself, for example, schizophrenia used to be called dementia praecox because it was viewed as early onset of dementia.

^ Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-ppQitxU8

^^ A core consideration in art therapy practice is to never to project personal interpretations onto someone’s artwork. An individual’s interpretation of their work is the authority.

^^^ Fun fact: standard history lessons credit Jung as developing the concept of archetypes; however, the word and concept of archetypes can be traced back to Ancient Greek. Essentially, Jung took the existing word “archetype” and redefined its old meaning to his liking. This is a topic worthy of exploring in more detail in the future.

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