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What is Conversion Disorder?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2014
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Conversion disorder is a rare psychological disorder brought on by intense stress. The patient manifests physical symptoms with no underlying physical cause, literally converting a psychological issue into a physical problem. True conversion disorder is rare, and it is treated with counseling and other psychiatric care designed to examine the root cause of the emotional upset which led to the outbreak of physical symptoms. Someone diagnosed with this condition is not faking it and may have repressed the mental conflict which led to the disorder so thoroughly that it takes some time to root it out.

Many mental health professions use a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders to diagnose a condition. The DSM sets out a series of conditions which must be met for an accurate diagnosis. According to the DSM, a patient with conversion disorder must meet several qualifications. The first is the manifestation of physical symptoms severe enough to require evaluation which cannot be explained through medical testing and examination. Common examples includes seizures which resemble epilepsy, difficulty with muscle control, paralysis, vision problems, dizziness, and gastrointestinal symptoms. The symptoms of conversion disorder often suggest a serious neurological or medical problem.

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Once it has been established that the patient is not faking it, a psychiatric professional will look at the patient's past history to see if the patient has experienced an intense trauma which could lead to conversion disorder. The trauma typically precedes the onset of this disorder, although ongoing mental issues can exacerbate it. After the source of the trauma has been identified, the patient undergoes therapy to address the situation.

According to psychodynamic theory, conversion disorder arises from interactions between various aspects of the psyche and physical body. This includes conscious and unconscious thoughts, as both of these can heavily influence personality and human behavior. As with all mental health conditions requiring therapy, someone with conversion disorder may have to visit several doctors before finding one to work with. A therapist who offers psychodynamic therapy my be a good choice, as the therapy can integrate different treatment modalities, depending on the individual patient. The greater flexibility of psychodynamic therapy may help patients get at the root of the problem causing the conversion disorder more effectively.

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anon318246
Post 4

I was finally diagnosed after three months of specialists, hospitalizations, and a battery of tests. My episodes left me unable to walk, with tremors, confusion, and trouble speaking. I was thought to have everything from guillian-barre to multiple sclerosis. I never imagined my anxiety and mental trauma could manifest in such a physical way. It's nice to know I'm not totally crazy.

anon305060
Post 3

I actually have true conversion disorder and it has done several different things. It is hard to explain but retriggers itself. Not a good situation to be in. The only thing that helps is talk therapy (intensive) and medication.

Tufenkian925
Post 2

I have heard historical examples of kings and figures in history "dying of sadness" as though their great grief was an immediate physical cause of death. I always rationalized these examples as having been indirect, with sadness causing some other issue such as a lack of eating or something which indirectly harmed a person due to their feelings. But conversion disorder shows that feelings can have a direct affect on the body.

TrogJoe19
Post 1

It is stunning to think that certain stress issues can be so intense that they can actually affect the chemical functioning of the physical body in a way that is generated from non-physical thoughts and feelings. Normally, you think it would be the other way around, with physical symptoms affecting the brain, but not in this case.

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