Comparison of Dissociative and Conversion Disorders

Dissociative disorders and conversion disorder are both mental health problems. Although they are separate diagnoses, these conditions often occur together.

Dissociative disorders cause a person to be disconnected from their thoughts, memories, consciousness, and identity. Conversion disorder, also called functional neurological disorder or functional neurological symptom disorder, causes neurological symptoms without an underlying neurological condition.

This article discusses the similarities and differences between dissociative disorders and conversion disorder.

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Types of dissociative and conversion disorders

There are three types of dissociative disorders. These include:

  • Dissociative identity disorder: This condition was formerly known as multiple personality disorder and causes a person to have two or more separate identities.
  • dissociative amnesia: This condition makes people unable to remember information about themselves. It is usually linked to traumatic events, such as emotional neglect and childhood abuse.
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder: People with this condition feel detached from themselves or their environment.

Conversion disorder is a diagnosis, but there are several types, based on a person’s symptoms, including:

What are the symptoms of dissociative disorders?

Each specific dissociative disorder has its own symptoms.

Common symptoms of dissociative identity disorder include:

  • At least two distinct identities, with different memories, behaviors and thought patterns
  • Memory loss about past traumas, current events, or personal information
  • Difficulty performing daily activities

Symptoms of dissociative amnesia center on the inability to remember information about oneself. The three main types of memory loss are:

  • localized: Specific to a period or an event — this type is the most common
  • Selective: Forgetting parts of an event or time period
  • Generalized: Complete loss of memory of life history and identity – this type is rare

Symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder include:

  • Look at yourself from the “outside”
  • Feel like living in a movie
  • “Out of body” experiences
  • Feeling disconnected from your thoughts

What are the symptoms of conversion disorder?

Conversion disorder is a mental health condition that is characterized by a variety of neurological symptoms that are seen in neurological disorders (disorders that affect the brain, nerves, and/or spinal cord). The symptoms are real and can cause distress and impairment. These may include:

  • Blindness or double vision
  • Loss of sense of touch
  • Numbness or tingling in the face, arms and/or legs
  • Paralysis of arm and/or leg muscles
  • Loss of speech or difficulty speaking
  • Deafness
  • Pain
  • Tremors/shaking
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Memory loss or “foggy” brain
  • Loss of smell
  • Coordination problems, dizziness and/or fainting
  • Seizures

Diagnose dissociative and conversion disorders

Dissociative disorders and conversion disorders are formally diagnosed by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, using the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This reference lists the specific criteria that must be met for a person to be diagnosed with certain conditions.

Dissociative disorders are diagnosed based on a person’s history and symptoms. Additional tests may be done to make sure the symptoms are not due to other medical conditions that can affect memory and other mental functions, such as a brain tumor, head injury, medication side effects, substance use, or sleep problems.

Conversion disorder is also diagnosed based on a review of symptoms. However, since conversion disorder causes a multitude of physical symptoms, further tests are usually done to rule out neurological conditions or other medical issues that may be causing similar symptoms.

When do these conditions occur?

While dissociative disorders and conversion disorders can occur at any age, they most often appear in adolescence.

Treat dissociative and conversion disorders

Psychotherapy is a primary treatment for dissociative and conversion disorders. The goals of psychotherapy include:

  • Working on past traumas
  • Identify and replace negative thought patterns
  • Learn new coping strategies
  • Teach stress management and self-care techniques
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Help people express their emotions
  • Improve communication

Additionally, psychotherapy for conversion disorder focuses on identifying the emotional issues that are causing the physical symptoms.

Physical therapy can be part of treatment for conversion disorder to help maintain muscle strength and reduce stiffness that can develop due to inactivity. Occupational therapy is also used to help a person regain the ability to perform daily tasks.

There are no medications that directly treat dissociative disorders or conversion disorders. However, medications are sometimes used to treat the depression and anxiety that can occur with these conditions, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Common SSRIs include:

  • Lexapro (escitalopram)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)

Prognosis

The prognosis for dissociative and conversion disorders varies depending on a person’s specific diagnosis, circumstances, and whether or not treatment is supported. Symptoms of dissociative disorders can be recurrent, often increasing with stress.

Appropriate psychotherapy and psychiatric treatment can potentially reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms and improve functioning.

Many people with conversion disorder make a full recovery. Physical symptoms can last as little as a few days or a few weeks. However, these symptoms can also be recurrent or chronic (long-lasting).

Proper treatment is important

Dissociative disorders and conversion disorder have a significant impact on a person’s daily life. The most important way to deal with these conditions is to seek proper treatment.

Summary

Dissociative disorders and conversion disorder are mental health problems that can occur together. Dissociative disorders cause a person to disconnect from important aspects of their life. Conversion disorder causes physical symptoms that mimic neurological conditions.

Both conditions are treated with psychotherapy. Other therapies can help restore function when the underlying psychological issues are resolved. In some cases, medications are used to treat depression and anxiety that often occur with dissociative and conversion disorders.

A word from Verywell

Dissociative disorders and conversion disorders are complex conditions that require treatment by a trained professional. If you suspect you might have any of these conditions, talk to your doctor. Treatment can significantly improve your quality of life.

If you are caring for someone with these conditions, consider joining a support group; these groups can help you feel less isolated and give you ideas and encouragement.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are dissociative and conversion disorders treatable?

    Dissociative disorders and conversion disorders are treated primarily through psychotherapy.

  • What is the difference between the symptoms of dissociative disorder and those of conversion disorder?

    Symptoms of dissociative disorder mostly present with psychological symptoms, while conversion disorder presents with physical signs and symptoms such as blindness and paralysis.

  • Can dissociative and conversion disorders develop later in life?

    Dissociative disorders and conversion disorders can occur at any age, but these conditions most often manifest in adolescence.

  • What triggers dissociative and conversion disorders?

    Dissociative and conversion disorders are associated with childhood trauma. However, in some cases, the cause is not known.

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