Conversion disorder strikes high school students

By Ben Fox, Staff Writer

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 According to a recent Newsweek article, when over 20 high school girls in Westchester, NY began to experience violent spasms, parents and doctors were stunned. Though these spasms are normally a symptom of Tourette’s syndrome, that hypothesis had been ruled out almost immediately, and there seemed to be no other reasonable cause. Shortly after that, however, neurologists conducted new tests that provided a shocking possible explanation: stress.

Though stress may seem like an unlikely reason for these spasms to occur, physical reactions to pressure are not a new occurrence. According to resource guidance counselor Beverly Lubenetski, she sees several students a week because of stress-related issues.

“The usual reactions are difficulty sleeping or nightmares, an inability to concentrate and headaches, among others,” Lubenetski said. “High school is always a very stressful time because students are juggling so many different parts of their lives at once.”

According to the National Library of Medicine, the scientific term for these reactions is a “conversion disorder,” mental diseases that cause anxiety from stress to develop into physical symptoms.

Conversion disorders may have gotten the most attention in Westchester, but students everywhere, including at CHS, have suffered from them. Sophomore Jeff, who requested that his real name not be used, has a conversion disorder that causes him to lose hair when stressed. According to Jeff, his disorder first appeared when he was about 8. His hair falls out in spots, though it usually is unnoticeable because he covers it up.

Jeff believes that his hair loss is due to anxiety, with a combination of school and family adding to the stress.

“The spots didn’t really appear much during the summer because I was relaxed,” Jeff said. “Though as soon as school started, and I felt more pressure because of all the work, they started to reappear.”

Conversion disorders don’t only affect those who have them. According to sophomore Annie*, who also requested that her real name not be used and whose older sister shakes uncontrollably when stressed, the rest of her family also goes through difficulties when her sister’s disorder appears.

“My dad gets really angry and starts to yell at us when my sister’s reaction occurs,” Annie said.

According to Potomac neurologist Sashidhar Movva, major changes in a person’s life can cause the development of a conversion disorder.

“Some of the most common causes are deaths in the family, major accidents or traumatic events, or a diagnosis of a major illness such as cancer,” Movva said. “Usually they are very rare.”

According to the official county website, the recommended way for teens to deal with stress includes exercising regularly, thinking positively and avoiding drugs and alcohol.

“Conversion disorders are extremely dependent on events happening in the community,” Movva said. “Their appearance may be less in communities which have good, supportive systems.”