Can your culture make you sick?

Here's the deal: there are some syndromes* that are specific to certain cultures. The people afflicted with these syndromes feel just as "sick" as folks with more widely-recognized ailments.

Huh? How can that be? I can think of a couple of ways it could be true. Either there's a genetic component to some syndromes that largely coincides with a particular culture, or it could be that some syndromes are not organic in origin, but rather fulfill some cultural function in a particular culture.

There must be some examples of the first (genetic) type, but I don't know any. Turns out the second kind has been studied. There's a good book about this, called (surprisingly enough) The Culture-Bound Syndromes, edited by Ronald Simons. Among the syndromes described in the book is Koro. This is a "disease" that occurs in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where the sufferer (always male) becomes convinced his penis is shrinking, or even disappearing into his body.

Another fascinating syndrome is sleep paralysis. This interests me because I have experienced it multiple times, but not for many years.

So...all that is fascinating, maybe, but why am I including it in this blog about being wrong and being happy? Because it shows that (sometimes) we're wrong what's making us sick, or even something as seemingly obvious as whether we're sick at all. I wonder how many other culture-specific syndromes we're suffering from, but don't recognize yet.

As I'm writing this post, I remembered a conversation I had with an EMT. He told me about "Hispanic panic," in which, during times of familial strife, an older Latina will faint, thus defusing the stressful situation by turning everybody's attention to the sudden "medical" problem. This EMT told me how you can distinguish this syndrome from a "real" organic problem: the patient is usually face up on the ground, with her hands at her sides. If you elevate one of her hands, if it does not drop down heavily, you're dealing with "Hispanic panic." The whole thing reminds me of how Victorian women were (really or supposedly) prone to "fainting." I think this qualifies as a culture-bound sydrome.

One more thing, which sort of tangentially relates. Recently I stumbled across another example: Paris Syndrome. This is where first-time visitors to Paris (particularly Japanese tourists) experience such extreme disappointment in the reality (as opposed to the fantasy) of Paris, that it manifests as physical symptoms.

Here's a link to buy the book
Click here to find the book in a library
Here's a link to Wikpedia's page about culture-bound syndromes
And a link to WP's article about Paris Syndrome

* A "syndrome" is basically a set of symptoms that tend to occur together. Their underlying cause may or may not be known.

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