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Conversion Disorder: What It Is and How to Cope

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If you’ve been diagnosed with conversion disorder, the news can be hard to hear. You might wonder how it’s treated, and what you can do to improve. Fortunately, there are many healthy ways to manage your symptoms. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed, here’s what you need to know. 


What is Conversion Disorder?

Conversion disorder is a rare psychological condition (somatoform disorder) that causes symptoms of a physical issue without any reasonable explanation for the impairment. Usually, the physical symptoms appear to be neurological in nature.

For example, a person may suddenly become blind. Some people experience tremors, or exhibit degrees of paralysis. Others have a speech impairment without any apparent reason. The symptoms typically impact a sensory or motor function. They can last several days or even weeks — or they might disappear overnight. 


What Are the Risk Factors?

Many factors can contribute to conversion disorder. However, most cases begin with extreme stress or an emotionally traumatic event. Conversion disorder may develop immediately after an incident or over time. However, unresolved stress or trauma often lies at the core.

The following conditions may increase the risk:

  • Underlying mental health conditions
  • Neurological conditions
  • A family member with the disorder
  • A history of abuse or neglect
  • Tendencies toward perfectionism or compulsive behavior

Other factors are also associated with conversion disorder. For example, women report the condition more often than men. Teens may also be at greater risk than adults. 


What Are the Symptoms?

The symptoms of conversion disorder can vary. In most cases, doctors can trace them to a stressor or traumatic event. This often indicates how symptoms will emerge. For example, a person who sees something horrifying may suddenly go blind. Someone traumatized by a physical experience may become partially or completely paralyzed.

However, even though the symptoms may vary widely, they often fall into one of these categories:

  • Weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Balance issues
  • Changes in gait or issues walking
  • Tremors
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Unresponsive episodes
  • Loss of sensation or numbness
  • Changes in vision or blindness
  • Hearing issues or deafness
  • Speech difficulties

A hallmark of the condition is that doctors cannot attribute symptoms to a medical condition. There is no apparent cause, indicating that they may be psychological. Because the symptoms are very real, this can be particularly frustrating for those who experience conversion disorder.


Conversion Disorder and Substance Abuse

A limited amount of research focuses on the connection between substance abuse and conversion disorder. However, one study did suggest a potential link for a group of individuals aged 14 to 24.

While there isn’t enough evidence to create a clear, indisputable connection, it is possible for conversion disorder and substance abuse to co-occur. Often, treating both conditions simultaneously has the strongest potential for yielding positive results. However, it’s important to seek professional help at a facility that is licensed to treat co-occurring disorders.

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Coping with Conversion Disorder

Because the symptoms are highly disruptive, dealing with conversion disorder can be challenging. The best way to move forward is to address the underlying stressor or emotional trauma with a professional. Those who suffer can also try a number of coping mechanisms on their own. For example, meditation or other relaxation practices may be beneficial. Reassessing a stressful job or taking a leave of absence from school might be necessary. 


Professional Conversion Disorder Treatment

Since the symptoms of conversion disorder vary, individualized treatment is important. Through counseling, those who suffer may become better equipped to face the core stressor or emotional trauma, allowing them to move past it.

Cognitive behavioral therapy as an outpatient can be a suitable start. In cases where symptoms hinder everyday life, physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy can also be helpful, as can medications and stress management techniques. For many people, however, addressing the trigger event and other underlying conditions that cause stress, including substance abuse, are what lead to long-term resolution.  

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.