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In the Beginning of Psychology, There Were the Fainters

Updated on August 6, 2012

In the beginning of psychology, there were the fainters...

How do you explain that? One of the prototypical conditions treated in early psychology was a condition called hysteria. It was most often found in women, associated with symptoms of anxiety, and featured fainting. In Victorian times, people fainted often and this has been attributed to the fact that women often wore very tight, uncomfortable clothing that cut off blood circulation. However, in the beginning of psychology, there were two fainters who figured prominently, and they were not women wearing tight corsets. They were the very fathers of psychology, Freud and Jung.



Freud’s fainting spells are both well known and well discussed. Freud himself in his letters gave some opinions of the causes. They happened most often in the presence of Jung and have generally been attributed to the rivalry and competition he felt from Jung. However, Jung was himself no stranger to fainting.

Could there have been other causes, perhaps more physical causes. Could it have been orthostatic intolerance or a range of health issues that are also related to his depression which is also well discussed in the literature. Modern science has revealed much of the idea of unconscious causes to be overblown (not irrelevant, but leaving out additive biological explanations). What do you think about Freud's fainting spells? Please leave a comment here or on facebook.



Jung, in his youth, developed a fainting problem. Around the age of twelve he began to have fainting spells. He attributed it to an unconscious motive to avoid going to school as he often fainted before school. One day, he hears his father speaking of his worry that he may never be able to support himself as they suspected epilepsy and from then on, he resisted the urge to faint, though he still fainted a few times after the incident. He attributed his fainting to neurosis caused by an unconscious motive of avoiding school.

Freud also attributed his fainting to unconscious motives and desires. He considered the possibility that it may be caused by his unconscious apprehension of secret motives to harm him coming from Jung.

Seeing it in a modern context, I think there was something introduced in Victorian times that increased the incidence of fainting in the general population. It was most often seen as a problem in women and associated with what was called hysteria. It came to be a sexist term, although a few men were also seen as hysterical and you could say Freud himself was suffering from a similar condition due to his fainting and bouts of depression. Could it have been something else that was inducing these conditions, something more physical and spread throughout the population?

I don’t know but I think it is a question worth studying because it could lead to a greater understanding of the modern condition called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) and dysautonomia. The symptoms appear throughout history in many exceptional individuals.



Charles Darwin for example suffered from "an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart", “For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress such as attending meetings or making social visits. The cause of Darwin's illness remained unknown, and attempts at treatment had little success.(Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 252, 476, 531)”

Those with conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and dysautonomia recognize those symptoms well, and the frustration of misdiagnosis or no diagnosis. In that, we are in good company. No one could tell Darwin what was causing his anxiety, cyclic vomiting, heart palpitations, and boils (possibly spheroid pseudotumors which occur in EDS). Even after a diagnosis of EDS, many with the condition get told by doctors that they are baffled and unable to provide effective treatment. Darwin went from doctor to doctor with little luck. In the end, he was unable to leave home except for infrequent trips to scientific conventions. He attributed some of his productivity in the field of science to the focus created by his inability to leave home. He had nothing to do but ponder and work on his theory due to having few other distractions because of him being home bound due to illness.


I hypothesize that these symptoms are dysautonomia caused by 3 conditions that have produced exceptional cognition in the presence of debilitating physical and psychological symptoms. They are:

1. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I wrote about how the condition may have produced exceptional abilities throughout history here:

A Theory of Ehlers-Danlos as a Genetic Advantage in Ancestral Environments Contributing to Advanced Civilization

2. Norepinephrine Transporter Dysfunction. The NA transporter may begin to function improperly and lead to high adrenaline levels leading to orthostatic intolerance but also increased sensitivity and thinking ability for some types of stimuli. I write about it here:

Primary Causes of POTS and Strategies to Reverse Them

3. Refined grain causing sugar allergy and autoimmunity. This is one of the more likely causes of fainting and symptoms of orthostatic intolerance and in a population. Many people are unable to easily process refined grains and sugars. This can cause symptoms of allergy and autoimmunity. In Victorian times and modern times, industrialization has led large segments of the population to subsist on refined sugars such as processed rice, wheat, corn, high fructose corn syrup, and soy derivatives. Such a diet causes heart disease, diabetes, and also symptoms of dysautonomia, anxiety, and depression in lots of people. An alternative is a natural diet of whole meats, fruits, and vegetables, devoid of breads and grains.

Thank you for reading. If you have further info about diet, lifestyle, or circumstances in Victorian and contemporary times that could have led to symptoms of dysautonomia, anxiety, or depression please leave a comment and let us know. This article is meant to facilitate discussion. Thank you and have a fruitful day.

DF Seldon



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    • pan1974 profile image

      April 5 years ago from Columbus,Ga

      I think that there are different scenarios that point to these illnesses depending on the individual and their back ground. In Victorian and Contemporary times they maybe had a very strict code in their society that could lead to mental anxiety. If a person didn't do some thing right, or failed in something, he would feel that's not acceptable in the society they live in and is not living up to status and standards this could maybe be an infliction to his or her ego, thinking from that perspective of that society they would probably beat themselves up mentally for not being acceptable, or being perfect, that could lead to anxiety, and other illnesses.

      Another scenario would be the realm of mind that the thinker lives in. He or she is thinking most of the time, that requires a lot of mental energy. Compared with a person that is not a scientific thinker, someone like a track star that is living outside the realm of a thinker, and using is energy outside his body physically, and creatively does not have time to develop anxiety. As for Freud fainting in the presence of Jung, these are two great thinkers, they had their disagreements on things, these two in the room with each other is like electrical currents AC/DC in the room.

    • udontnomi profile image

      udontnomi 5 years ago from intense introspection

      So the fathers of psychology need a therapist? This was very intersting and thought provoking. It is the kind of history that is fun to read. Great job! I will share this with my wife. She will love it.