What is conversion disorder?

Ever heard of conversion disorder? Neither had I, but for the people who suffer from it, the symptoms can be extremely confusing and debilitating.

Conversion disorder, also known as functional neurological symptom disorder, is a condition where mental stresses and worries, in other words, psychological factors, are converted into physical symptoms.

Dr. John Mayer describes conversion disorder as a “physical manifestation of a mental illness.”

The disorder typically starts with a mental problem or stressful event that then converts into a physical problem. These physical symptoms resemble neurological disorders, and as such, have a particular influence on the muscles and the senses.

Dr. Jared Heathman clarifies the disorder even further:

“Conversion disorder is a psychiatric condition diagnosed when an impairing neurological symptom exists without a medical or cultural explanation.”

It is perhaps easier to explain by giving a few examples:

  • Imagine if you were in a car crash and afterwards, you could not physically move your legs, even though they were not damaged by the crash.
  • You saw someone choking on a piece of food and then suddenly you found that you could not swallow.

How can conversion disorder affect you?

Conversion disorder can affect the way we walk, hear, see, move, swallow – anything that involves using the neural pathways in our brain that drive muscle movement. Once the symptoms start, they cannot be controlled and the person begins to feel even more anxious about the situation.

Conversion disorder can affect all ages, from small children to older adults. It is better treated in younger children and those who receive immediate counselling tend to have brighter outcomes. Symptoms can vary and come and go, or be persistent.

It is important to state that someone who is experiencing the disorder is not making up their symptoms, nor are they likely to be exaggerating them. It is true to say that conversion disorder can be incredibly different to diagnose, and suffers may have to seek medical advice from several sources before getting the right diagnosis and the specialist help they require. The absolute truth is that this is an actual disorder and people who are suffering need to be taken seriously.

As Dr. Jay Salpekar, director of the Neurobehavioral Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, told CNN: “The bottom line is that this stress is somehow converted into a physical symptom. Everybody has their breaking point.”

As for what causes conversion disorder, we are still no closer to finding out. Several theories have been bandied about. One is that the brain is trying to resolve the internal psychological conflict the person feels by replicating these feelings physically.

We have listed ten signs of conversion disorder below:

  1. Sudden blindness
  2. Paralysis of body limbs.
  3. Numbness in the body.
  4. Uncontrollable body movements.
  5. Sudden deafness.
  6. You have body weakness.
  7. You lose your sense of balance or finding walking difficult.
  8. Cannot swallow easily.
  9. Start to have convulsions or seizures.
  10. Inability to speak or problems with speech.

How to treat conversion disorder

It is accepted practice that the best way to treat a person with conversion disorder is to focus on the underlying mental issue first. This could be by prescribing anti-anxiety medication or therapy to get to the bottom of the psychological factors that are causing the immediate stressful triggers.

Once the psychological issues have been targeted, the physical symptoms can then be addressed, by using techniques such as physical therapy, hypnosis or even brain stimulation with magnetics.

Conversion disorder is a relatively new disorder but sufferers can get help and should not be disheartened.


  1. psychcentral.com
  2. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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