It’s Not All In Your Head: Unraveling The Mystery Of Conversion Disorder

Published June 15, 2015
Updated July 27, 2015

A patient enters a hospital emergency room after having a seizure. The doctor sees her and orders the regular tests, expecting to find that the patient had epilepsy, had perhaps taken some drugs, or had been injured somehow.

But they come up with nothing.

As the patient comes around, more symptoms show up that doctors can’t explain. The patient is so weak she cannot walk; she experiences sudden deafness or even blindness, and she finds it difficult to form words when trying to speak. The patient is admitted for more tests but all of them come back normal. The doctors are at a complete loss.

What could be causing the patient’s mysterious symptoms?

A Brief History of Conversion Disorder

Today we might look at this patient’s symptoms and deem she is suffering from Conversion Disorder. But for much of medical history this cluster of symptoms would have been termed “hysteria” and later, “hysterical neurosis.” Since there were no detectable physical reasons, the belief was that the patient’s symptoms must be “all in their head.”

The connection between mind and body is much more complex than we historically have given it credit for. In modern medicine, we understand that our bodies are very demonstrably affected by our state of mind and vice versa. What’s not entirely understood, even now, is how our bodies convert our emotional pain into physical pain. All we know is that it does.

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Source: Giphy

Most of what we know comes from studies that are not altogether recent, despite the fact that it’s supposed that as many as a quarter of us will experience conversion symptoms at some point in our lives. Since these symptoms tend to be classified under a much broader category of somatoform conditions, it can be tricky to suss out precisely why someone is experiencing them.

The earliest explanations for these types of conditions–wherein very physical symptoms presented without an organic cause–were linked specifically to women and, even more specifically, the uterus. The “wandering uterus” theory persisted as an explanation for hysteria for quite a long time. It was only during the Freudian renaissance of modern psychotherapy that it began to be termed “conversion”–implying that repressed emotions were quite literally being converted into physical symptoms.

Though, it should be made clear that in the case of conversion disorder, this is by no means a conscious effort on the part of the patient. It’s happening at a subconscious level, though the physical symptoms bring about a tangible, demonstrable symptomatology that doesn’t require the articulation of more deeply rooted emotional trauma. By “converting” the unspoken, maybe even unrecognized, emotions into physical symptoms, the body and mind begin to connect–sometimes in an extremely jarring way.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England . Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Bustle, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and Quartz.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Norman, Abby. "It’s Not All In Your Head: Unraveling The Mystery Of Conversion Disorder.", June 15, 2015, Accessed May 19, 2024.