Recently 12 teenage girls from a school in upstate New York suddenly became very ill with Tourette’s symptoms, including tics and verbal outbursts.  High school cheerleader Thera Sanchez stated her symptoms appeared “out of the blue” after a nap one day in October.  The state health department performed an extensive search of the school to determine whether environmental factors or toxins were to blame for the girls’ symptoms. After the investigation, they found that the girls’ symptoms were not caused by an infection or any environmental factor.  Instead, the symptoms were caused by a psychological condition called conversion disorder, which is commonly referred to as “mass hysteria.”

Conversion disorder is a real psychological condition that is caused by stress.  People with conversion disorder experience neurological symptoms, such as problems with motor control or sensory function.  This condition often causes significant impairment in several areas of life.  Conversion disorders can occur with individuals alone and within groups.  Stress can often be “contagious,” which explains why conversion disorders sometimes occur within groups of people or within crowds in public places.

Myths and facts about conversion disorder:

MYTH: People with conversion disorder are making up their symptoms.

FACT: People with conversion disorder are usually very distressed by their symptoms and are trying hard to find a physical explanation to cure their symptoms.

MYTH: People with conversion disorder want to be sick, and they are doing this for attention.

FACT: There are other psychological conditions in which people fake physical symptoms, but people with conversion disorder experience their symptoms as being outside of their control.

MYTH: People who get conversion disorder are “crazy.”

FACT: People who develop conversion disorder may be otherwise mentally and physically healthy.  Stress can affect anybody at any time, and nobody is completely immune to developing conversion disorder symptoms.

The brain is a very powerful organ that controls the entire body.  The brain influences both physical and emotional functioning.  Scientists and physicians used to think that the mind and body were completely separate and did not influence one another.  They believed that physical illness resulted only from chemical and biological factors.  In recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize the powerful role of the mind related to health and physical illness.  Many physicians and psychologists now embrace a bio-psycho-social model of health and illness.  This model helps explain how biology, psychology/mental processes, and social factors all contribute to health and illness.