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Mental Disorders

Introduction to Conversion Disorders

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Welcome to our Conversion Disorders topic center. The Conversion Disorders (technically known as the Somatoform Disorders) are a family of disorders whose defining characteristic is that they all involve physical bodily symptoms suggestive of a medical problem, in the absence of evidence of medical problems that could account such symptoms. Conversion disorders can co-occur with medical problems, but only when the medical problems are insufficient all by themselves to account for the severity of the conversion symptoms a given patient experiences.

Examples of conversion disorders include Hypocondriasis, Pain Disorder (including chronic pain), Conversion Disorder and Somatization Disorder (historically known as hysteria). Hypocondriasis involves a fear of contracting a serious illness which is experienced so deeply that the patient often misinterprets normal bodily experiences as evidence of their having a serious disease. Somatization Disorder and Conversion disorder both involve the experience of multiple sensory, digestive sexual and neurological type symptoms (such as temporary paralysis of an arm or leg, irritable bowel, or temporary blindness), with the collection of symptoms being more pronounced and longer lasting in Somatization Disorder as compared to Conversion. Pain disorder (particularly in its chronic form) involves the experience of pain sensations in the absence of an injury, or continuing on after the causal injury has healed.

Given that they all involve physical (and not psychological) forms of pain, it is probably not very surprising that conversion disorder patients tend to be identified most often in medical settings. Historically, physicians doubted that their conversion patients were experiencing ‘real’ symptoms because they were unable to locate a sufficient medical cause for them to be present. Those physicians that accept their patients complaints at all came to the conclusion that many conversion symptoms were best regarded as physical expressions of what was really psychological and emotional pain. In other words, a patient might be experiencing severe psychological symptoms (anxiety, depression, etc.) but either lack the ability to express these emotions directly, or be inhibited from expressing them directly for cultural or similar reasons. Admitting feelings of anxiety might be very shameful for a given patient, for example. Such patients are thought to one degree or another to ‘convert’ their emotional difficulties into bodily symptoms; taking anxiety, for instance, and expressing it as a headache, and an irritable bowel. None of this is thought to occur intentionally. To the extend that conversion occurs, it is thought to occur unconsciously, and without any manipulative intent.

More detailed information on the various conversion disorders is available through the documents and links attached to this and child topic centers. Please browse these resources to gain in understanding of this remarkable disorders.