Conversion Disorder: Definition, Causes and Treatment

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  • 0:10 Conversion Disorder…
  • 2:14 Diagnosis
  • 4:53 Causes and Treatment
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Have you ever heard the expression 'mind over matter?' Well, that pretty much describes conversion disorder. In this lesson, we'll learn about the history, symptoms, causes, and treatment of the mental illness known as conversion disorder.

Conversion Disorder and Hysteria

James can't see. His eyes work fine, and there's nothing obviously wrong with his brain, but he has lost the ability to see. It happened about a year ago when he was feeling very stressed at work. Ever since then, he has been blind. James' doctor is stumped and sends him to a psychologist for help because the doctor thinks he might have something called conversion disorder.

Conversion disorder is a psychological disorder that involves having physical or neurological symptoms of a disease without physical or neurological evidence for that disease. In the 19th century, conversion disorder was called hysteria. Early psychologists, like Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot, noticed that many of their patients were sharing certain physical symptoms despite not actually being sick. Charcot saw many patients who seemed to suffer from seizures and paralysis but had nothing physically wrong with them.

At the time, conversion disorder was believed to only happen to women. As a result, some doctors believed that these symptoms were caused by a womb that had detached itself and wandered around the inside of the body. The term coined for the disease, 'hysteria,' came from the Greek word for the uterus.

However, as time went on, it became clear that men as well could suffer from conversion disorder. Freud, who still believed that conversion disorder was a female issue, began to call hysteria conversion disorder because he believed that it was caused by the body converting psychological issues into physical symptoms.

In the 20th century, psychological disorders were clarified in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. In this book, mental illnesses were put into categories and each disorder was given its own criteria to help psychologists diagnose it. Conversion disorder was put into the category of somatoform disorders, which are psychological illnesses that cause physical symptoms.


Remember James? For the past year, he's been unable to see, even though there's nothing physically wrong with him. Imagine that you are a psychologist and James' doctor sends him to you. You believe that he may have conversion disorder. In order to diagnose him, you pull out your DSM and look down the list of symptoms for conversion disorder.

1. Physical symptoms that suggest a neurological or medical condition.

James is blind, which is a symptom that is normally caused by either a neurological or medical condition, so he meets this criterion.

2. The symptoms began or became worse around the time of a psychological stressor.

Remember that this started for James about a year ago when he was feeling stress at work. Other possible stressors that could cause or exacerbate symptoms include losing a loved one, changing careers or even positive life events, like having a kid.

3. The person is not faking it.

That is, the patient isn't doing something to cause the symptoms and isn't pretending to have the symptoms. When James is tested, it's clear that he truly can't see.

4. The symptoms cannot be explained by a physical condition.

Both James' eyes and brain are fine, so there's no medical explanation for his blindness; therefore, he meets this criterion.

5. It causes distress or impairment.

Distress could be any type of emotional problems - if the person is upset, for example. Impairment could mean that the person is not able to have a normal relationship, or that he or she is not able to hold down a job or take care of themselves. Since James lost his sight, he has not been able to continue at his job, which constitutes occupational impairment, so yes, his condition has caused impairment.

6. There is not another mental disorder that could explain it.

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