The 15 Scariest Mental Disorders of All Time
Imagine having a mental disorder that makes you believe that you are a cow; or another that you’ve somehow become the walking dead. Pretty freaking scary, eh? Well, while relatively rare, these disorders are all too real.
Worldwide, 450 million people suffer from mental illness, with one in four families affected in the United States alone. While some mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, can occur organically, others are the result of brain trauma or other degenerative neurological or mental processes. Look, having any mental illness can be scary, but there are some disorders that are especially terrifying. Below, I’ve described the 15 scariest mental disorders of all time.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome
In 1865, English author Lewis Carroll wrote the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commonly shortened to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre, (seriously, who knew they even had a nonsense genre?) it is the tale of an unfortunate young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into a subterranean fantasy world populated by odd, anthropomorphic creatures. That’s your vocabulary word for the week… anthropormorphic. Popular belief is that Carroll was tripping when he penned it. Regardless if that’s true or not, what is true is that one of Alice’s more bizarre experiences shares its characteristics with a very scary mental disorder. Also known as Todd Syndrome, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome causes one’s surroundings to appear distorted. Remember when Alice suddenly grows taller and then finds she’s too tall for the house she’s standing in? In an eerily similar fashion, people with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syndrome will hear sounds either quieter or louder than they actually are, see objects larger or smaller than what they are in reality, and even lose sense of accurate velocity or textures they touch. Described as an LSD trip without the euphoria, this terrifying disorder alters one’s perception of their own body image and proportions. Fortunately, this syndrome is extremely rare, and in most cases affects people in their 20’s who have a brain tumor or history of drug use. If you need yet another reason to not do drugs… well, there ya go.
Alien Hand Syndrome
While most likely familiar from cheesy horror flicks, Alien Hand Syndrome isn’t limited to the fictional world of drive-in B movies. Those with this very scary, but equally rare mental disorder experience a complete loss of control of a hand or limb. The uncontrollable body part takes on a mind and will of its own, causing sufferers’ “alien” limbs to choke themselves or others, rip clothing off, or to viciously scratch themselves, to the point of drawing blood. Alien Hand Syndrome most often appears in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative brain disorder that leads to dementia and death, or as a result of brain surgery separating the brain’s two hemispheres. Unfortunately, no cure exists for Alien Hand Syndrome, and those affected by it are often left to keep their hands constantly occupied or use their other hand to control the alien hand. That last one actually sounds even worse- one unaffected arm fighting against the affected arm that’s trying to tear into the person’s own flesh. Yikes.
Also known as Body Integrity Disorder and Amputee Identity Disorder, Apotemnophilia is a neurological disorder characterized by the overwhelming desire to amputate or damage healthy parts of the body. I recall a woman with Apotemnophilia making worldwide news ages ago when she fought with her HMO to cover the amputation of one of her otherwise healthy legs. Good luck; they don’t even cover flu shots. I remember I was pretty shocked that she found a surgeon to agree to do the amputation in the first place, as it seemed to me that might violate that little thing called the Hippocratic Oath us docs took when we got our medical degrees, specifically that part about ‘do no harm’… and sparked a debate about the ethical dilemma of treating or “curing” a psychiatric disorder by creating what is essentially a physical disability. Though not a whole heck of a lot is known about this strangely terrifying disorder, it is believed to be associated with damage to the right parietal lobe of the brain. Because the vast majority of surgeons will not amputate healthy limbs based purely upon patient request, some sufferers of Apotemnophilia feel forced to amputate on their own, which of course is a horrifying scenario. Of those who have convinced a surgeon to amputate the affected limb, most say they are quite happy with their decision even after the fact.
Those who suffer from the very rare- but very scary- mental disorder Boanthropy believe they are cows, and usually even go so far as to behave as such. Sometimes people with Boanthropy are even found in fields with cows, walking on all fours and chewing grass as if they were a true member of the herd. When found in the company of real cows, and doing what real cows do, people with Boanthropy don’t seem to know what they’re doing when they’re doing it. This apparently universal finding has led researchers in the know to believe that this odd mental disorder is brought on by possible post-hypnotic suggestion, or that it is a consequence of dreaming or a sleep disturbance, sort of kin to somnambulism, aka sleepwalking. I can buy the sleepwalking thing. I have a patient that is a lifelong sleepwalker who sleep-eats, sleep-cleans, sleep-cooks, sleep-destroys, sleep-online-shops, sleep-everythings. Some mornings she wakes up to very unpleasant findings of the house in total disarray, electronics dismantled and improperly and ridiculously fashioned together, every piece of furniture moved or a sink full of dishes and pots and pans with dried up food in them. Before setting up prevention measures, she even had single episodes of adult sleep-driving, and even sleep-biking at (eek!) age 9. In the middle of the night, her mother awoke to what she thought was the big garage door opening, and when she went to check, she saw her coasting out of the driveway on her bright yellow bike, heading right toward a very busy highway. She always has zero recall of the events afterwards. If she can do all of that while essentially sleeping, it would be comparatively easy to wander out to a pasture on all fours and stick around to munch on some grass. Curiously, it is believed that Boanthropy is even referred to in the Bible, as King Nebuchadnezzar is described as being “driven from men and did eat grass as oxen.” Or was it King Nemoochadnezzar? No? Okay, moooving on…
Named after Joseph Capgras, a French psychiatrist who was fascinated by the effective illusion of doubles, Capras Delusion is a debilitating mental disorder in which a person believes that the people around them have been replaced by imposters. As if that’s not bad enough, these imposters are usually thought to be planning to harm the sufferer. It really sounds like a bad Tom Cruise movie. Oh, wait; that’s redundant. Anyhoo, in one case, a 74-year-old woman with Capgras Delusion began to believe that her husband had been replaced with an identical looking imposter who was out to hurt her. Fortunately, Capgras Delusion is relatively rare, and is most often seen after trauma to the brain, or in those who have been diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia, or severe epilepsy.
Like people with Boanthropy, people suffering from Clinical Lycanthropy also believe they are able to turn into animals; but in this case, cows are typically replaced with wolves and werewolves, though occasionally other types of animals are also included. Along with the belief that they can become wolves and werewolves, people with Clinical Lycanthropy also begin to act like the animal, and are often found living or hiding in forests and other wooded areas. Didn’t Tom Cruise play a werewolf in one of his many (vapid) movies? Or was it a vampire? Werewolf, vampire – tomato, potato.
In a case of life imitating art, or life inspiring art, we have Cotard Delusion. In this case, the ‘art’ is zombies, a la The Walking Dead. Oooh, scary! For ages, people have been fascinated by the walking dead. Cotard Delusion is a frightening mental disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that they are literally the walking dead, or in some cases, that they are a ghost, and that their body is decaying and/or they’ve lost all of their internal organs and blood. The feeling of having a rotting body is generally the most prevalent part of the delusion, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that most patients with Cotard Delusion also experience severe depression. In some cases, the delusion actually causes sufferers to starve themselves to death. This terrifying disorder was first described in 1880 by neurologist Jules Cotard, but fortunately, Cotard’s Delusion, like good zombie movies, has proven to be extremely rare. The most well-known case of Cotard Delusion actually occurred in Haiti, circa 1980’s, where a man was absolutely convinced that he had previously died of AIDS and was actually sent to hell, and was then damned to forever walk the earth as a zombie in a sort of pennance to atone for his sins.
Diogenes Syndrome is a very exotic name for the mental disorder commonly referred to as simply “hoarding,” and it is one of the most misunderstood mental disorders. Named after the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (who was, ironically, a minimalist), this syndrome is usually characterized by the overwhelming desire to collect seemingly random items, to which an emotional attachment is rapidly formed. In addition to uncontrollable hoarding, those with Diogenes Syndrome often exhibit extreme self neglect, apathy towards themselves or others, social withdrawal, and no shame for their habits. It is very common among the elderly, those with dementia, and people who have at some point in their lives been abandoned or who have lacked a stable home environment. This is likely because ‘stuff’ never hurts you or leaves you, though most people with the disorder are unlikely to be able to make that connection. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this disorder is much more common than some of the others I’ve mentioned here.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is the mental disorder that used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Another disorder that has inspired a myriad of novels, movies, and television shows, DID is extremely misunderstood. Generally, people who suffer from DID often have 2-3 different identities, but there are more extreme cases where they have double digit numbers of identities. There was a “reality” show a few years ago that centered on a young mother of two that supposedly had like 32 distinct personalities. All of them had names and ranged from a five-year-old child to an old grandpa; and according to her, a few of them were homosexual while the rest were not, so she was required to be bisexual. She claimed that many of the personalities knew everything about all of the others, and they would get mad at or make fun of the others at various times. What’s more, she would “ask” other personalities to come forward so that producers could ask them questions for the camera’s sake, and her voice and mannerisms changed, depending on the different characteristics of the personalities. It was all pretty difficult to buy to be honest, because I’ve seen a lot of people with DID, and none seemed like they were having as much fun with their illness as she did. In true DID cases, sufferers routinely cycle through their personalities, and can remain as one identity for a matter of hours or for as long as multiple years at a time. They can switch identities at any time and without warning, and it’s often nearly impossible to convince someone with DID that they actually have the disorder, and that they need to take medications for it. For all of these reasons, people with Dissociative Identity Disorder are often unable to function appropriately in society or live typical lives, and therefore, many commonly live in psychiatric institutions, where their condition and their requisite medications can be closely monitored.
Most people cringe at the first sniffle indicating a potential cold or illness, especially these days, but not those with Factitious Disorder. This scary mental disorder is characterized by an obsession with being sick. In fact, most people with Factitious Disorder intentionally make themselves ill in order to receive treatment; and this is what makes it different than hypochondria, a condition where people blow mild symptoms into something they aren’t, kind of like if you cough once and automatically think you have covid-19. Sometimes in Factitious Disorder, people will simply pretend to be ill, a ruse which includes elaborate stories, long lists of symptoms, doctor shopping, and jumping from hospital to hospital. Such an obsession with sickness often stems from past trauma or a previous genuinely serious illness. It affects less than .5% of the general population, and while there’s no cure, psychotherapy is often helpful in limiting the disorder.
Imagine craving the taste of a book or wanting to have sex with a car. That’s reality for those affected by Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, a mental disorder typically characterized by memory loss, the desire to eat inedible objects, and sexual attraction to inanimate objects such as automobiles. I’ve seen a television documentary that featured people with strange fetishes, and they had two British guys that were sexually attracted to their cars. They gave them names and described their curves in the same manner that some men describe women. While one guy (supposedly) limited it to “just” caressing his car, the other actually also made out with his car; I’m talking about tongue and everything. Talk about different strokes! Because of the memory loss, not surprisingly, people with Kluver-Bucy Syndrome often have trouble recognizing objects or people that should be familiar. They also exhibit symptoms of Pica, which is the compulsion to eat inedible objects. The same wierd fetish documentary featured two young women that were “addicted” to eating weird stuff; one routinely ate her sofa cushions. She actually pulled the foam apart into bite sized pieces and ate them, many times a day. She became so used to doing so that she would get anxious if she went too long without eating it, so she started having to bring pieces of her sofa with her to work. I’m guessing she didn’t have to worry about co-workers stealing her food. She had started eating the cusions so long ago that she was actually on her second couch. Her family was so concerned about the potential medical ramifications of eating couch cushions that they made her see a gastro doc, who thought he was being punked when he asked why she was there. After imaging studies, she was in fact diagnosed with some intestinal issues and told to stop eating couch cushions, but the desire was too great for her to cease. She’s probably on her fourth couch by now. The other girl actually loved eating powder laundry detergent. She described the taste in the same dreamily excited way a foodie describes a chef’s special dish du jour. This terrifyingly odd mental disorder is difficult to diagnose, and seems to be the result of severe injury to the brain’s temporal lobe. Unfortunately, there is not a cure for Kluver-Bucy Syndrome and sufferers are typically affected for the rest of their lives.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Though it’s widely heard of and often mocked, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is rarely well understood. OCD manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is most often characterized by immense fear and anxiety, which is accompanied by recurring thoughts of worry. It’s only through the repetition of tasks, including the well-known obsession with cleanliness, that sufferers of OCD are able to find relief from such overwhelming feelings. To make matters worse, those with OCD are often entirely aware that their fears are irrational, but that realization alone actually brings about a new cycle of anxiety. OCD affects approximately 1% of the population, and though scientists are unsure of the exact cause, it is thought that chemicals in the brain are a major contributing factor. I’ve discussed OCD and recounted OCD patient stories many times in this blog and in my book, Tales from the Couch.
Paris Syndrome is an extremely odd but temporary mental disorder that causes one to become completely overwhelmed while visiting the city of Paris. Stranger still, it seems to be most common among Japanese travelers. Of the approximately 6 million Japanese visitors to Paris each year, one to two dozen of them experience the overwhelming anxiety, depersonalization, derealization, persecutory ideas, hallucinations, and acute delusions that characterize Paris Syndrome. Despite the seriousness of the symptoms, doctors can only guess as to what causes this rare and temporary affliction. Because most people who experience Paris Syndrome do not have a history of mental illness, the leading thought is that this scary neurological disorder is triggered by the language barrier, physical and mental exhaustion, and the reality of Paris as compared to the idealized version. Slam! I’ll bet the Paris Tourism Board hates to hear about this one! Huh houn, wee wee monsieur.
The Reduplicative Amnesia diagnosis was first used in 1903 by neurologist Arnold Pick, when he described a patient with a diagnosis of what we know today as Alzheimer’s Disease. It is actually very similar to Capgras Syndrome, in that it involves duplicates, but instead of believing that people are duplicates, people with Reduplicative Amnesia believe that a location has been duplicated. This belief manifests itself in many ways, but always includes the sufferer being convinced that a location exists in two places at the same time. Today, it is most often seen in patients with tumors, dementia, brain injury, or other psychiatric disorders.
Stendahl Syndrome is a very unusual psychosomatic illness; but fortunately, it appears to be only temporary. The syndrome occurs when the sufferer is exposed to a large amount of art in one place, or is spending time immersed in another environment characterized by extreme beauty; probably one of those places that “takes your breath away.” Those who experience this scarily weird mental disorder report sudden onset of rapid heartbeat, overwhelming anxiety, confusion, dizziness, and even hallucinations. It actually sounds a lot like a panic attack to moi. Stendahl Syndrome is named after the 19th century French author who described in detail his experience after an 1817 trip to Florence, which is evidently a beautiful place. I have it on good authority that Stendahl Syndrome has never happened to any visitor to Paris, which, oddly enough is Stendahl’s country of origin.
So, we’ve learned a lot today: that there is a nonsense literary genre, that there are a bunch of freaky and frightening mental disorders out there, that some people might need to look up the word anthropormorphic, that illicit drugs are bad for yet another reason, that a lot of terrible B movies are actually based on some pretty obscure mental disorders, that people with Boanthropy probably get a lot of fiber in their diet, that the lives of people with Capras Delusion sound a lot like a bad Tom Cruise movie, that the term “bad Tom Cruise movie” is redundant, that Tom Cruise probably has Clinical Lycanthropy, that Tom Cruise is a tool, oops, sorry, everyone already knew that. We also learned that there is no longer such thing as Multiple Personality Disorder; it is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, that Kluver-Bucy Syndrome is threatening to couches, and that if you have Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, co-workers will never steal your lunch. We learned that Japanese tourists hate Paris, and that Stendahl Syndrome never happens there. And we learned lots of other cool stuff, but that if you have so much stuff that you can’t walk through your house you likely have Diogenes Syndrome, probably because you have a deep seated knowledge that stuff never hurts you or leaves you.
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Conversion disorder is a condition in which patients present with neurological symptoms such as numbness, blindness, paralysis, or fitswithout a neurological cause. It is thought that these problems arise in response to difficulties in the patient’s life, and conversion is considered a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th edition (DSM-IV). Formerly known as “hysteria”, the disorder has arguably been known for millennia, though it came to greatest prominence at the end of the 19th century, when the neurologists Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud and psychiatrist Pierre Janet focused their studies on the subject. The term “conversion” has its origins in Freud’s doctrine that anxiety is “converted” into physical symptoms. Though previously thought to have vanished from the west in the 20th century, some research has suggested it is as common as ever.
DSM-IV defines conversion disorder as follows:
- One or more symptoms or deficits are present that affect voluntary motor or sensory function suggestive of a neurologic or other general medical condition.
- Psychological factors are judged, in the clinician’s belief, to be associated with the symptom or deficit because conflicts or other stressors precede the initiation or exacerbation of the symptom or deficit. A diagnosis where the stressor precedes the onset of symptoms by up to 15 years is not unusual.
- The symptom or deficit is not intentionally produced or feigned (as in factitious disorder or malingering).
- The symptom or deficit, after appropriate investigation, cannot be explained fully by a general medical condition, the direct effects of a substance, or as a culturally sanctioned behavior or experience.
- The symptom or deficit causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or warrants medical evaluation.
- The symptom or deficit is not limited to pain or sexual dysfunction, does not occur exclusively during the course of somatization disorder, and is not better accounted for by anothermental disorder.