Conversion Disorder Vs. Somatic Symptom Disorder: Understand The Difference

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 12/10/2020

Mental health disorders are incredibly complex and nuanced; oftentimes, one disorder can look quite different from person to person.

Mental disorders can be hard to identify because they usually do not produce physical symptoms, as many other illnesses would. Some mental disorders do produce physical symptoms, and these symptoms can be quite debilitating for those who suffer from them.

Somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are two examples of disorders that can reveal themselves through physical symptoms. Though quite similar in nature, these two disorders are two distinct and very challenging mental health issues.

So, what exactly is somatic symptom disorder? What about conversion disorder? We will outline the details of each individual disorder and how to differentiate between the two and treat them in our guide below.

What Is Somatic Symptom Disorder?

According to The American Psychiatric Association, somatic symptom disorder involves an individual having a preoccupation with or significant focus on physical health and symptoms, like pain or weakness.

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An individual with somatic symptom disorder will feel significant distress over these symptoms, and though these symptoms may or may not actually be associated with a physical illness, the person experiencing them believes that they are. It is important to note that while these conditions may not be physical, a person with somatic symptom disorder cannot simply “get over” the conditions they feel. It is a serious, and very real, mental health disorder that often requires professional help.

Below are some specific examples of diagnostic criteria that may be used to determine whether an individual is suffering from somatic symptom disorder.

  • One or more physical symptoms cause significant distress and anxiety
    • These symptoms also impact or disrupt daily life and activities
  • Excessive worry, thoughts, and anxiety about physical symptoms, often beyond the amount that would be generally considered “reasonable”
  • Excessive time and energy are spent on the physical symptoms or trying to remedy them
  • At least one symptom is present at the time of diagnosis

Somatic symptom disorder usually begins to affect an individual before they turn thirty, though this is not always the case.

Those suffering from this disorder might have a hard time identifying it; especially because they believe that, the source of their distress is a physical illness rather than a mental disorder.

What Is Conversion Disorder?

Conversion disorder is a disorder characterized by an individual experiencing blindness, paralysis, or other symptoms that affect the central nervous system that cannot be explained by physical illness or injury. These symptoms often start after a period of significant emotional or physical distress.

Though the exact cause of conversion disorder is not understood, it is generally believed to be related to the body’s reaction to stressful events or situations, especially since symptoms typically start after a particularly distressing time in one’s life.

Symptoms of conversion disorder can include the following:

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  • Blindness
  • Paralysis
  • Loss of voice
  • Trouble controlling movements or coordination
  • Loss of senses - loss of smell, for example, is common

Symptoms of conversion disorder may overlap with symptoms of other mental health issues especially because those who have mental health conditions can be more likely to develop conversion disorder

An important characteristic of conversion disorder is the fact that the physical symptoms experienced are not caused by any discernible physical health condition. These symptoms can still be quite debilitating, though, and those who suffer from conversion disorder often find it helpful to receive validation that what they are experiencing is real.

Somatic Symptom Disorder vs. Conversion Disorder

Now that you know what somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are, you have likely noticed some of the similarities between the two.

Both conditions involve individual experiencing symptoms of a physical illness without any concrete evidence of one. In this sense, the two disorders are quite similar; in both cases, sufferers might struggle to understand and process what they feel, especially if they are aware that their symptoms are not actually caused by physical illness.

However, despite being similar, somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are not the same thing. Somatic symptom disorder does not affect the central nervous system the way conversion disorder does, and both disorders produce unique symptoms as a result.

It is important to recognize the difference between the two in order to effectively treat and recover from these disorders. Below, we will talk about some additional differences between the two disorders to help you better understand the details of each.

This guide is not meant to diagnose you, but to inform you. If you suspect that you or someone you know has either somatic symptom disorder or conversion disorder, seeking a healthcare professional's guidance is always the best place to start.

Somatization vs. Conversion

Two terms used frequently when discussing somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are conversion and somatization.

Somatization refers to experiencing psychological distress via physical symptoms. In other words, mental and psychological stress show themselves in the form of physical symptoms, like pain, rather than through the more emotional symptoms we often associate with mental health disorders.

Conversion refers to the phenomenon of a mental disturbance (or distress) manifesting itself via physical or psychological symptoms, like those we have discussed above.

These two definitions are very similar, and they both refer to the idea of a mental health issue showing itself through physical symptoms. However, conversion disorder is associated with neurological symptoms rather than physical pain or irritation (which is more in line with somatic symptom disorder). For example, conversion could be associated with a neurological symptom like blindness, which is more easily identified, while somatization could be associated with the patient feeling physical pain.

Is Conversion Disorder A Somatic Disorder?

Both conversion disorder and somatic symptom disorder are/have been considered somatic, or somatoform, disorders. This means that both disorders are characterized by mental stress manifesting itself as physical pain or illness.

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Therefore, when it comes to conversion disorder vs. somatization, or somatoform vs conversion disorder, there is no contest - somatization is a part of conversion disorder as well as somatic symptom disorder.

To put it simply, conversion disorder falls under the same umbrella as somatic symptom disorder. Both disorders involve the same sort of phenomenon, though they notably create different symptomsSomatic symptom disorder is associated with physical symptoms like pain, but conversion disorder specifically refers to symptoms that affect the nervous system.

Identifying and Treating Somatic Disorders

Think you may have somatic symptom disorder or conversion disorder? If so, you are not alone. Though these mental disorders might receive less attention from the public and the media, they are still legitimate health conditions that you can receive treatment for.

Because somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are not caused by any physical health condition or illness, they can be tricky to identify.

This is especially true for those who are actually suffering from either disorder, as they may not understand where their symptoms are coming from (or, if they do, might feel like they are unable to receive validation from others or confirmation that their symptoms are real).

If you think you may be suffering from either disorder we have discussed, you might find it beneficial to take our free, confidential somatic symptom test. This test is not meant to diagnose you, but to instead help you understand your symptoms and direct you to resources, like online therapists, that may be beneficial for your condition.

Oftentimes, the road to recovery from these disorders is not necessarily easy. Once either disorder has been diagnosed, though, proper treatment plans can be put into place to help relieve symptoms or help the individual in question live a healthy, normal life.

What does treatment for disorders with no physical cause look like, though? The answer may vary from person to person, and some people are able to recover overtime without any formal treatment at all. However, those who do seek treatment may consider any of the following:

  • Counseling or therapy helps to address the root of the problem, which is often a distressing event, memory, etc.
  • Physical therapy - this can help treat the physical symptoms of the disorders and relieve pain associated with them. For example, stress may cause you to hold tension, which could then lead to tension headaches.

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  • Occupational therapy
  • Hypnosis
  • Other treatment that addresses related stressors

Always be sure to speak with a healthcare professional to develop an effective treatment plan for you. No two people are alike, and neither are two individual cases of either disorder.

Conclusion

Now that you understand what somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorder are, you are familiar with the symptoms of each disorder, as well as how to tell the difference between the two.

Though these two mental disorders are incredibly similar in their origin and characteristics, they are not interchangeable. The type of symptoms an individual experiences with each disorder are distinct, and treating both disorders as if they are the same thing puts you at risk for pursuing ineffective treatment.

Somatic symptom disorder and conversion disorders are very real and very challenging mental disorders. Our somatic symptom test is a great tool to start understanding these disorders and symptoms, but if you or someone you know is suffering from the symptoms and signs we have discussed, seeking professional help is always a great idea.

No one deserves to have to suffer through the symptoms of either disorder alone, or at all. Do not be afraid to reach out for help if you need it - it can make a huge difference.

NOTES: No changes needed.

  • Does not go against what is clinically accepted.
  • Does not encourage mindsets or practices that may be harmful to the reader.
  • Is factual and up-to-date.