Conversion Disorder

February 1, 2017

Conversion disorder is defined as a rare mental disorder in which person experiences very specific and genuine physical symptoms for which no physiological basis can be found.

It is a psychological condition in which a person loses abilities such as seeing, hearing, or speaking or becomes paralyzed, but no medical explanation can be found to explain the symptoms. Symptoms of conversion disorder often begin after some stressful experience, and they have traditionally been thought of as an expression of emotional conflict or need.

Historically, this disorder was termed “hysteria” by Freud after observing similar symptoms in his patients. For example, a woman might present with a paralyzed right arm for no apparent reason. Freud suggested that these symptoms were expressions, or “conversions,” of unconscious cognitive or emotional material that were unacceptable to the conscious mind or contained conflict.

Today, while the medical model has crossed oceans in attempts to abandon Freudian thought, this is one of the topics that still holds mystery and lies in the wake of our repressed Freudian shores. While medical doctors do not understand Conversion Disorder in terms of unconscious material, most professionals would agree that there is a considerable psychological and emotional component. Stress and trauma are ghosts that mysteriously elicit these physical symptoms.

The term “conversion” comes from the idea that psychological distress is being converted into a physical symptom. A long-standing theory has been that a person with conversion disorder must block out the source of the distress — be it a conflict or stress — because it is too unacceptable for the person to remain aware of it. There is, however, little formal evidence to support this theory.

Conversion disorder is more common in women than in men. It occurs most frequently between adolescence and middle age. Although relatively rare in the general population, conversion symptoms may be found in up to 14% of patients in general hospitals. In some reviews, they accounted for about 30% of symptoms among neurology outpatients. A significant percentage of people with conversion disorder have another psychiatric problem, such as generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or some form of depression. There may have been a recent stress or trauma. People with the disorder also report a higher than average frequency of emotional or physical abuse during childhood.


Conversion disorder symptoms may occur because of a psychological conflict.

Symptoms usually begin suddenly after a stressful experience. People are at risk of conversion disorder if they also have a medical illness, or the other mental health problem of dissociative disorder (escape from reality that is not on purpose) or a personality disorder (inability to manage feelings and behaviors that are expected in certain social situations).

Persons who have conversion disorder are not making up their symptoms (malingering). Some doctors falsely believe that this disorder is not a real condition and may tell patients the problem is all in their head. But this condition is real. It causes distress and cannot be turned on and off at will.

Risk Factors

  • Recent significant stress or emotional trauma
  • Being female — women are much more likely to develop conversion disorder
  • Having a mental health condition, such as mood or anxiety disorders, dissociative disorder or certain personality disorders
  • Having a neurological disease that causes similar symptoms, such as epilepsy
  • Having a family member with conversion disorder
  • A history of physical or sexual abuse and neglect in childhood


Conversion Disorder is also referred to as “Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder,” referring to the “functional” impairments in behavior, rather than neurological abnormalities, per se. Some examples of “functional” impairments associated with Conversion Disorder are described below.

Possible Motor Symptoms –

  • Weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Abnormal movements
  • Tremors or dystonia (abnormal muscle contractions/movements)
  • Gait abnormalities
  • Abnormal posture
  • Limb shaking resembling seizures
  • Reduced or absent speech or articulation
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat

Possible Sensory Symptoms –

  • Abnormal, reduced, or absent:
  • Skin sensation
  • Vision (e.g., blurred vision, seeing double)
  • Hearing
  • Unresponsiveness resembling fainting or coma



Counseling (psychotherapy) – Seeing a psychologist or professional counselor can help treat symptoms of conversion disorder and prevent it from coming back. This can be especially helpful if you also have anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.

Physical therapy – Working with a physical therapist may prevent complications of certain symptoms of conversion disorder. For example, regular movement of arms or legs may ward off muscle tightness and weakness if you have paralysis or loss of mobility.

Treating related stress and other conditions – Conversion disorder may improve when you get treatment for stress, anxiety or another underlying problem. Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants or other drugs as part of your treatment plan, depending on your individual health profile.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation – Some reports show that people with conversion disorder may benefit from this type of treatment, which involves exciting brain activity by using weak electrical currents that are said to alter the brain’s biochemistry. However, this approach is still in an early stage regarding its use in the management of conversion disorder

Alternative Treatment

Nutritional Supplements – Adrenal extracts; carbohydrate-rich diet; garum armoricum (great bluefish); ginger; l-theanine (green tea); macrobiotic diet; milk peptides (New life Tryptozen); oats; perilla oil (perilla frutescens); vitamins B3, B6, B12, and C. Studies summarizes the evidence supporting the effectiveness and safety of inositol in managing anxiety disorders.

Amino acids (l-phenylalanine/phenylalanine [norepinephrine precursor], l -arginine, l-lysine, l-glutamine, l-leucine); melatonin; pregnenolone;phytoestrogens (soy or Mexican yam); tyrosine (norepinephrine precursor); SAMe (S-adenosyl-l-methionine)

Herbs – Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera); Bach flower essences; bacopa; berocca; borage juice (starflower); bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus); catnip; chamomile; damiana; fennel; feverfew; ginkgo; ginseng; golden root (Rhodiola rosea); gotu kola; hops; kanna; lemon balm; lemongrass leaves; licorice; meadowsweet; motherwort; mullein (Verbascum sinuatum); mulungu; noni (Morinda citrifolia); peppermint; pine bark extract; reishi (Ganoderma lucidum); Relora (magnolia/phellodendron); schisandra; scullcup (skullcap); verbena (blue vervain)


Reference –

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