3 Reasons Why Someone May Have A Conversion Defense Mechanism

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Conversion is a type of defense mechanism that converts cognitive tensions and anxiety into physical symptoms. For instance, anxiety caused by repressed feelings can manifest itself into a cough or even an illness. Many people develop defense mechanisms to distance themselves from unwanted feelings or thoughts. Sometimes, we perform these defense mechanisms without even realizing it.

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Let’s take a closer look at conversion, different types of defense mechanisms, and why they are formed. Learning how to identify and ameliorate these defense mechanisms is important for improving both your mental health and dealing with future encounters of stressful situations.

Top 3 Reasons Why Someone Might Have Conversion Disorder

There are a variety of reasons why people develop defense mechanisms. A stressful life event or the formation of an unacceptable thought toward another person can unconsciously trigger the onset of a defense mechanism like conversion disorder.

Let’s take a closer look at the three top reasons why someone may have a conversion defense mechanism.

1. They Experienced a Traumatic and Distressing Life Event

In Professor Gordon Turnbull’s book Traumathe doctor examines the case of his 35-year-old female patient, Ely. The young woman had suddenly lost the use of her legs and became paralyzed from the waist down. X-rays searching for a bleed in the spine came back negative. When attempting a lumbar puncture on Ely, Turnbull noticed that she didn’t think so much as wince when he pushed the needle into her spine.

After interviewing Ely, Professor Turnbull learned she had been raped. This event had caused the perplexing physical symptoms observed by Turnbull. Ely soon found that talking about the experience helped her process and heal from it. After practicing this new therapy, Ely was able to leave the hospital two days later.

2. They Underwent Extreme Stress

People going through extreme stress, such as a divorce or a sudden death in the family, can develop a conversion disorder. This is done to ward off any unpleasant or unwanted feelings. Conversion is simply one of the many paths the brain can take when it comes to dealing with stress and trauma.

3. Their Physical Symptoms Interfere with Their Normal Day-to-Day Functioning

People who display physical symptoms that cause significant distress or disability after experiencing a traumatic event may have a conversion disorder. However, if the symptoms do not impede the patient’s normal way of living or if they appear normal within the context of a culture, a physician would not give a diagnosis for conversion disorder.

Sigmund Freud’s Top 10 Defense Mechanisms

Sigmund Freud first proposed the idea of defense mechanisms. His idea was based on the psychoanalytic theory, which views the personality as the interaction between the id, ego, and superego. Since his initial proposal, mental health professionals have expanded and evolved his idea of defense mechanisms. Many researchers contend that these defense mechanisms are done subconsciously. Others believe these defense mechanisms are caused by irrational beliefs rather than the subconscious mind. Most people do them without knowing what “defense strategy” they are even using.

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The Id, Ego, and Superego and Their Involvement in Defense Mechanisms

Freud’s theory on defense mechanisms is rooted in the interactions of the id, ego, and superego, which are three dueling forces in mind. Each aspect prevails over a different need.

  • Id: Primitive part of the mind that controls basic instincts and sexual urges
  • Ego: Moderates the interactions between the id and superego
  • Superego: The force in the mind that pushes you to make moral decisions

Ego defense mechanisms are employed to reduce conflict between the id and superego. When the needs of the id and the superego clash and create anxiety within a person, the ego defense mechanism will kick in and use methods of self-deception to subdue the discomfort. These methods may involve blocking the unwanted thought or projecting it onto someone else.

1. Conversion

Conversion disorder, which is also known as functional neurological symptom disorder, is a type of defense mechanism that deflects an unwanted emotion, such as anxiety, and manifests it into physical illness. Anything from a cough to symptoms of appendicitis can be found in patients who have a conversion disorder. One key feature of this disorder is the disconnect between a patient’s symptoms and any known medical conditions.

Symptoms of conversion disorder include:

  • Motor issues such as weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal movements including tremors and difficulty walking
  • Altered vision, hearing, and touch
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Non-epileptic seizures where the patient experiences a loss of consciousness and limb shaking without displaying the same electrical activity as a brain experiencing an actual seizure
  • Troubles with speech
  • Episodes similar to a coma or fainting spell
  • Anxiety and nervousness

These symptoms can last for varying amounts of time — from a sudden fainting spell to a long-lasting speech problem. Conversion disorder is one of the most common defense mechanisms in women, with the condition being two to three times more common among them than men.

2. Projection

Projection is one of the most common defense mechanisms observed in people. To shed uncomfortable or negative feelings, a person may project these emotions onto another person. For example, someone who is cheating on their partner may attempt to project their guilt onto their partner and accuse them of cheating. Doing so preserves the guilty party’s ego and prevents them from having to accept their true feelings.

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3. Regression

Regression occurs when the ego reverts to an earlier stage of mental development after being faced with extreme stress. For instance, a young child may begin to wet the bed again or beg for a pacifier even though they have already been weaned off it. Regression is one of the most common defense mechanisms in children. Everything from the death of a family member to starting at a new school can trigger regressive behavior.

4. Intellectualization

Intellectualization involves removing oneself emotionally from a stressful or traumatic event. Someone who was laid off from their job may repress the negative emotions associated with such an event and focus on making spreadsheets to organize job applications and leads. A patient who learns they have cancer may start asking about the survival rate and chances of success for different drugs.

5. Denial

Denial is also one of the most common defense mechanisms among people. People who are in denial of an event or piece of knowledge block it from their awareness and refuse to accept it as reality. A functioning alcoholic, for instance, may deny that they have a drinking problem because of how well they can manage their relationships and job. Many mental health professionals consider denial to be one of the most primitive defense mechanisms.

6. Rationalization

People who attempt to excuse or justify bad behavior are practicing rationalization. They are unconsciously trying to avoid facing the true underlying reasons for a situation or action. While rationalization is not always considered one of the more severe defense mechanisms, it can become dangerous if the person practicing it is attempting to excuse destructive or harmful behavior.

Examples of rationalization can include someone attempting to blame their sour mood on bad traffic or a partner blaming their abused victim for being uncooperative and thereby causing their own mistreatment. People may also rationalize the choices they make if they know deep down they are incorrect or morally wrong.

7. Sublimation

Sublimation is the act of channeling unwanted or harmful urges into acceptable ones. Some people deflect these impulses using humor or fantasy. Sublimation is categorized under mature defense mechanisms due to its ability to help a person redirect negative emotions into a healthy and safe outlet.

8. Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is a type of defense mechanism that blocks off certain parts of one’s life and prevents it from intermingling with others. For instance, choosing not to discuss personal issues at work is compartmentalizing.

9. Altruism

Altruism is considered one of the most common mature defense mechanisms in psychology—people who practice altruism attempt to help others to avoid stressful situations. The person often receives joy and satisfaction from the positive responses of the people they helped.

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10. Suppression

Suppression is also categorized under mature defense mechanisms. Suppression involves the voluntary pushing of unpleasant thoughts and feelings out of one’s awareness. For instance, someone who has been unkind or rude to another person may try to avoid thinking about it. Doing so prevents them from facing uncomfortable feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Treatment for Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms usually aren’t harmful or bad -— they can sometimes help people manage painful experiences and emotions. As a result, they can function normally despite the past trauma or unpleasant events they faced.

However, defense mechanisms can also be harmful if they are used too often. Refusing to face the situations or people causing unpleasant feelings can be unhealthy. Many people turn to mental health professionals to help modify or transform their defense mechanisms.

Are you ready to seek treatment? The online mental health professionals at BetterHelp are here to assist you in coping with any past events and unpleasant emotions you are currently facing.


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