What Is Conversion Disorder? - Treatment, Symptoms, Definition & Causes

Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Have you ever heard the expression 'it's all in your head'? For those suffering from conversion disorder this is the case, even when very seemingly real physical symptoms are experienced. Read on to find out more about this rare disorder and a recent case in which it was reported in mass numbers in New York.

Definition and Symptoms of Conversion Disorder

Conversion disorder is defined as a rare disorder in which a person experiences very specific and genuine physical symptoms for which no physiological basis can be found. In this case, the symptoms really are 'all in your head.' Despite there being no physical problem, people suffering from conversion disorder can have very serious symptoms occur, such as sudden blindness, paralysis, muscle ticks/tremors, unexplained aches and pains, or an inability to swallow. Although these symptoms seem very real to the patient experiencing them, they are usually indicative of a psychological problem instead of a physical one.

Causes of Conversion Disorder

Most of the time conversion disorder is a manifestation of anxiety or stress through (sometimes severe) physical symptoms. This could be stress or anxiety stemming from any situation ranging from the day-to-day stress of a job to childhood sexual abuse. The reason why a manifestation of physical symptoms occurs in some people suffering from anxiety and not others is still unknown.

One case study involves a 53-year-old woman simply referred to as 'Ms. A' who was experiencing myriad symptoms which included tremors, facial numbness, and severe headaches. She was admitted to a hospital and underwent many tests, which all came back negative. Consequently, she was evaluated by a psychologist who uncovered the fact that Ms. A was sexually abused as a child. Additionally, she recently discovered that her father also sexually abused her own daughters, which coincided with the onset of her symptoms. After this was revealed, she was diagnosed with conversion disorder.

A more bizarre case which made the news in 2012 was reported in New York in which 12 female high school students all started experiencing stuttering, uncontrollable muscle movements, and verbal outbursts. There was a great deal of concern about environmental problems near the high school, such as air or water contamination, as the cause. After exhaustive investigations of environmental conditions and medical testing of the girls affected, the case still remained a mystery.

It was only after the girls sought psychological help that they were considered to be having a conversion reaction, in which people who may already feel anxious may see another experiencing physical symptoms and by that observation be subconsciously influenced to start exhibiting the same symptoms. In the New York case, many of the girls affected were experiencing some sort of family stress, such as divorce. Although this was a relatively well-known case, conversion reaction is even rarer than conversion disorder itself.

Treatment for Conversion Disorder

Although the best treatment for conversion disorder is still widely debated, the most common is psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on helping the patient to identify possible unconscious sources that may be causing anxiety. Once these unconscious conflicts, traumas, or emotions are brought into consciousness and the patient becomes self-aware, the resolution of such conflicts is supposed to ensue.

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