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SUNY Empire State College Health Illness and Society Essay

SUNY Empire State College Health Illness and Society Essay


Title: Idioms of Distress: Exploring Susto in Comparison to Anxiety Disorders and PTSD


Cultural anthropology delves into the intricate tapestry of human societies, uncovering diverse perspectives on health and illness. One fascinating aspect of this exploration is the concept of “idioms of distress,” which refers to folk illnesses or culture-bound syndromes. These idioms of distress are unique to specific cultures and convey particular forms of suffering, manifesting in symptoms that differ significantly from one culture to another. This essay aims to shed light on one such culture-bound syndrome: susto, a fright sickness prevalent in Central and South America. To gain a deeper understanding, we will compare and contrast susto with Western categories of anxiety disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This comparative analysis will unveil the cultural, social, and psychological dimensions that shape these illnesses.

Susto: A Culture-Bound Syndrome

Susto, pronounced “soo-stow,” is a culture-bound syndrome predominantly found in Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. The term “susto” translates to “fright” or “soul loss” in English, which encapsulates its core belief: that a traumatic event or severe fright can cause the soul to become disconnected from the body, resulting in a range of physical and psychological symptoms.

Common Manifestations of Susto

  1. Physical Symptoms: Individuals suffering from susto may experience various physical ailments, including fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. These symptoms are often attributed to the soul’s separation from the body, causing a disruption in the individual’s vital energy.
  2. Emotional and Psychological Symptoms: Susto is closely associated with emotional distress, manifesting as anxiety, depression, fear, and a sense of impending doom. Affected individuals often report feeling disconnected from their surroundings and experiencing intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event.
  3. Social and Cultural Implications: Susto has profound cultural significance, as it is believed to result from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events that transgress cultural norms and values. This includes events such as the sudden death of a loved one, encounters with malevolent spirits, or exposure to witchcraft. In many cases, susto is seen as a form of punishment for breaking societal taboos or neglecting cultural practices.
  4. Traditional Healing Practices: Treatment for susto typically involves traditional healers, known as curanderos or curanderas, who specialize in rituals to reunite the soul with the body. These rituals often include cleansing ceremonies, herbal remedies, and spiritual guidance. The healing process is not only physical but also spiritual, aiming to restore balance within the individual.

Comparison with Western Anxiety Disorders

While susto is a culture-bound syndrome, its manifestations bear some similarities to Western anxiety disorders. Let’s compare and contrast susto with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a common anxiety disorder in Western societies.

  1. Causes: Susto is primarily attributed to specific traumatic events and cultural transgressions, whereas GAD may arise from various factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences.
  2. Symptoms: Both susto and GAD involve symptoms like anxiety, restlessness, and physical discomfort. However, susto often includes cultural and spiritual components, such as soul loss, which are absent in GAD.
  3. Treatment: Susto is typically treated through traditional healing practices involving rituals and spiritual elements, whereas GAD is often treated with psychotherapy and medication.
  4. Cultural Context: Susto is deeply rooted in the cultural and social fabric of Latin American societies, reflecting the importance of spirituality and communal support. In contrast, GAD treatment in Western societies often focuses on individual therapy and medication management.

Comparison with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another Western mental health diagnosis with some similarities to susto, particularly in terms of its relationship to trauma. Let’s explore the comparisons and contrasts between these two conditions:

  1. Causes: Both susto and PTSD are linked to traumatic events. However, PTSD encompasses a broader range of traumatic experiences, including war, accidents, and sexual assault, whereas susto is typically associated with culturally specific traumatic events.
  2. Symptoms: Both conditions involve intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and heightened anxiety. However, susto often includes culturally specific symptoms like soul loss and the fear of malevolent spirits, which are not part of the PTSD diagnostic criteria.
  3. Treatment: Treatment for susto often involves traditional healing practices and cultural rituals, whereas PTSD treatment in Western contexts focuses on evidence-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
  4. Cultural Context: Susto is deeply intertwined with the cultural beliefs and practices of Latin American communities, making it a collective experience. In contrast, PTSD is framed within the individualistic context of Western societies, often emphasizing individual trauma and recovery.


The concept of “idioms of distress” highlights the rich diversity of human experiences and the ways in which culture shapes our understanding of health and illness. Susto, as a culture-bound syndrome, offers a unique lens through which we can explore the intersection of cultural, social, and psychological factors in the manifestation and treatment of illness. By comparing susto with Western anxiety disorders and PTSD, we gain valuable insights into how cultural beliefs and practices influence our understanding of suffering and the healing process. Ultimately, this exploration underscores the importance of cultural competence in healthcare and the need for a holistic approach to mental health that acknowledges the cultural dimensions of distress.

SUNY Empire State College Health Illness and Society Essay





Essay: Idioms of Distress

Explore the Cultural Anthropology/Health and Healing Wiki.

Anthropologists describe folk illnesses or culture-bound syndromes as “idioms of distress,” because local illness categories and symptoms communicate particular kinds of suffering, the meaning of which varies from culture to culture. After reading the Anthro Wiki description of folk illness and skimming the CBS articles in the supplementary resources folder (or doing some independent research online), please select a culture-bound syndrome and outline its common manifestations. How does this disorder compare/contrast with illnesses you encounter in your society in terms of causes, symptoms, treatment, etc.?

One possible choice is exploring susto, a fright sickness common in Central and South America, and comparing it with our Western categories of anxiety disorder or PTSD, which have similar manifestations. You may need to do some brief research in the definitions and history of PTSD to be able to compare these conditions. This essay should be at least 1000 words and should be free of grammar and spelling errors. All sources used, whether print or web, including textbooks, should be referenced clearly, both in text and at the end of your essay in APA style.

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