What Is Conversion Hysteria?

Jennifer Long

Conversion hysteria is another term for a conversion disorder. A patient with this disorder experiences neurological or physical problems without any known cause. It is believed that the sufferer transfers psychological anxiety into physical symptoms. Common symptoms include paralysis and numbness. Patients may also experience symptoms that mimic conditions such as heart attacks and viral infections without actually having those conditions.

A patient with conversion hysteria experiences neurological or physical problems without any known cause.
A patient with conversion hysteria experiences neurological or physical problems without any known cause.

The DSM-IV manual provided by the American Psychiatric Association categorizes conversion hysteria as a somatoform disorder. This type of disorder is marked by transference of mental symptoms into physical ones. The manual provides criteria for characterizing conversion disorders. Criteria include symptoms that resemble a medical or neurological condition that affects sensory or voluntary motor abilities, psychological influences, and unintentional knowledge of symptoms.

Conversion hysteria often occurs in conjunction with hypochondriasis, malingering, and Munchhausen’s syndrome. Hypochondriasis is a disorder that occurs when the patient believes he or she has specific conditions even though testing has proved that no such conditions exist. Malingering occurs when a person exhibits symptoms and has an understanding of why he or she fakes the symptoms. Munchhausen’s syndrome, also called factitious disorder, is the opposite of malingering. The patient exhibits symptoms that do not coexist with an actual diagnosis, but he or she does not know why he or she fakes those symptoms.

There are several different theories to explain the possible causes of conversion hysteria. Psychoanalytic theories suggest that conversion disorders are the result of internalizing unconscious drives that are not allowed to be expressed. This theory, as another alternative, also suggests that physical symptoms can occur due to the patient’s need to suffer. Therapists treat conversion disorders through helping patients find more suitable ways to defend themselves.

A conversion disorder can be explained differently through the socioculture theory. According to this theory, the prohibition of emotional expression in many cultures leads some patients to transfer their emotions into physical symptoms as a way of communicating. Culturally acceptable rituals may be a way of treating conversion hysteria, allowing an outlet to express emotions. When emotions can be released instead of internalized, physical symptoms may begin to disappear.

The learning theory has an explanation for conversion hysteria as well, suggesting that behaviors of conversion disorders are due to the secondary gains a patient experiences. The patient continues to convert physical symptoms as the behaviors continue to be reinforced. Reinforcements in this instance can be anything the patient views as a reward, including extra attention and gifts. Treatment includes behavior modification therapy, which helps the patient understand that it is more beneficial to stop exhibiting physical symptoms.

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