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Also known as Cotard’s Delusion or Walking Corpse Syndrome, Cotard’s Syndrome is an extremely rare mental disorder in which the afflicted person believes that he/she is dead. Variants of delusions also include delusions of having being removed a part of the body (such as internal organs), delusions of having lost a significant amount of blood that lead to the person’s death (internal bleeding) or delusions of being doomed for eternal damnation.
The disorder is more common in women compared to men. Out of 8 patients affected, 6 are women.
Cotard’s Syndrome was discovered in 1880 by the French neurologist Jules Cotard. He made significant contributions in the understanding of delusions and diabetes during his work in the town of Vanves, in 1874. Not much information is given about the genesis of the discovery of this condition. However, some literature mention a specific case (Mademoiselle X), a middle-aged who would have been identified as suffering from “Le Delire des Negations” (the original French name of Cotard’s Syndrome). In that particular case, Mademoiselle X believed that she was meant to die a particular death, and thus denying her need to eat (alongside with other concurrent negations), she starved herself and eventually ended up dying of starvation.
Key Features for Cotard’s Syndrome: a Delusions of Negation and a Distorted Reality
In everyday life, we are constantly reminded that we are what we think, and our thoughts become reality. This type of motto is intended to make us be more positive and attract good things in our lives. Even if we don’t always believe that despite the trueness of this reality, dealing with people suffering from psychiatric disorders truly emphasize and highlight how powerful the human mind is. In the case of Cotard’s Syndrome for example, afflicted persons have a great sense of distorted reality, and as a result of that, all their actions are driven according to that reality. When we consider “Mademoiselle X” for example, she believed that she was meant to die of a specific kind of death (and even, she was convinced she was already dead), and thus wanted to remain as natural as possible. Denying her need to eat, denying her existence and everything else that the human body needs to survive was just a representation of what was “her” reality.
Additionally, patients suffering from the disorder also arbor what is known as delusions of negation. These are persistent beliefs of worthlessness (body, mind and spirit) as well as uselessness.
The three Disease Stages
Based on patients’ observations and clinical experiments, researchers were able to define the three stages of Cotard Syndrome.
The first stage is the Germination Stage: this is the stage during which the delusions of negation and the distorted reality are conceived in the patient’s mind. The patient appears depressed, sad, and has altered daily living habits. Additionally, because of the feeling that there is something wrong with his/her body, the patient might become over concerned with its health and might develop a certain level of hypochondriasis.
The Blooming stage is the second stage of the disorder. At this phase, the delusions become full-blown and more intense, and the negation and denial of one’s body is much more pronounced that the patient’s actions begin to mirror that belief: self-isolation, self-neglect, carelessness, inadequate hygiene, etc.
The last stage of the disease is the Chronic stage where the depression worsen, and so do the delusions. At this stage, it becomes more difficult to get the patient out of his/her beliefs.