The brain is a complex organ that produces all kinds of physical and emotional effects on your body. Sometimes, emotional trauma or psychological stress can trigger physical symptoms. When this happens, your symptoms are real and tangible but may be difficult for others to recognize or understand.

Physical symptoms that develop from psychological stress or emotional trauma have been called hysteria in the past but are now known as conversion disorder or functional neurological disorder (FND).

This article will explain the basics behind this disorder, the symptoms you may experience, who may develop it more often, and how healthcare professionals treat it.

Conversion disorder is a psychiatric disorder first described by Sigmund Freud more than a century ago. Also known as FND, conversion disorder develops when your nervous system can function typically but does not function correctly.

The disorder involves psychological stress or emotional trauma converting into physical symptoms. It has become more accepted and understood in recent years because of functional imaging studies and other new testing tools.

For people who have this disorder, there is no physical cause of symptoms. But rather, they experience a trigger that interrupts signals from the brain to different areas of the body. When these signals experience an interruption, physical symptoms like paralysis can temporarily appear and then disappear.

Anyone can develop conversion disorder, but it’s most common in people who have been through traumatic physical or psychological events. Between 4 and 50 out of every 100,000 people may experience this disorder, and it’s most common in:

  • women, especially those with a history of sexual trauma
  • children younger than 10 years old
  • people who experience educational, socioeconomic, and health inequities

Some potential triggers that can cause this disorder or related symptoms to appear include:

There is also a 2021 study that suggested inflammation can play a role in the development of conversion disorder.

Fiction or reality? Assessing the symptoms of conversion disorder

Symptoms like sudden paralysis or speech difficulties can signal serious neurological events like a stroke. Although conversion disorder is not rooted in physical, neurological events like a brain bleed or blood clot, your healthcare professional may check you for other possible causes of your symptoms.

A doctor may perform imaging studies to rule out other underlying causes — or issues occurring alongside your conversion disorder — and to make an accurate diagnosis.

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Symptoms of conversion disorder can vary from person to person, appearing and resolving suddenly or lasting for years. The appearance of unexplained neurological symptoms usually leads to a diagnosis of conversion disorder.

Some of the symptoms that people report with this disorder may include:

How long do symptoms last?

How long symptoms last can be unique to your experience. Symptoms can come and go quickly or last for years. Researchers are currently unsure why some people have symptoms longer than others, but the degree of trauma or stress you experienced that triggered the symptoms may have something to do with it.

Conversion disorder is, in a way, a treatment on its own for psychological or emotional stresses. A sort of protective mechanism, conversion disorder is thought to be your body’s way of helping you to dissociate or cope with difficult situations or events.

Dialectical behavior therapy, mindfulness, and other therapies that focus on recognizing and accepting the disorder are used most often and most effectively for treating conversion disorder.

In a 2018 case report, cognitive and behavioral therapy that focused on tolerating stress, regulating emotions, and other coping skills decreased seizures by about 60%. The report also found that these treatments eliminated symptoms completely in about 30% of people who had seizures from conversion disorder.

There are no specific medications to treat the disorder, but several therapies may help:

Depending on your triggering factors for conversion disorder, your healthcare professional may also suggest medications to treat conditions like anxiety and depression.

Conversion disorder was described more than a century ago as a hysterical disorder in which psychological or emotional stress translated into physical symptoms ranging from fatigue to paralysis. Newer functional brain imaging tests helped identify conversion disorder as a true disorder, not just something that a person imagines.

Since this disorder develops as a sort of protection mechanism to help you cope with past trauma or abuse, cognitive and behavioral therapies are usually most helpful as treatments. Your doctor may prescribe you medication for depression or anxiety or therapies to help with speech or movement difficulties.