A Look at Culture-Specific Phobias

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A phobia is an irrational fear of something that creates intense feelings of anxiety. Many kinds of phobias are common across all groups, transcending age, gender, culture, and socioeconomic status. Other phobias, however, appear almost exclusively among particular cultural groups.

Culture-Specific Phobias and Fear Responses

Here we will examine three culture-specific phobias (or conditions that act much like phobias) that appear to be unique to the culture of those who reportedly suffer from them: ataque de nervios, taijin kyofusho, and koro.

1. Ataque de Nervios

The fear response known as ataque de nervios appears almost exclusively among Hispanic people, particularly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The condition is much more prevalent in females than in males. The symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable screaming
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Inability to move
  • Fainting
  • Shaking arms and legs
  • Feeling hot
  • Palpitations
  • Loss of memory

Ataque de nervios shares many symptoms with a panic attack or phobia. However, panic attacks tend to occur in situations that are not inherently frightening and a phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something specific.

Where this condition deviates from our understanding of phobia-related panic attacks is that ataque de nervios is generally triggered by a situation that most people would consider frightening.

However, the severity of the reaction is much worse than most people experience. Additionally, people who experience ataque de nervios generally do not fear encountering a similar situation in the future.

2. Taijin Kyofusho

The condition known as taijin kyofusho appears almost exclusively among those of Japanese and Korean descent, and much less often among other Asian cultures. The condition is almost an exact reversal of social phobia. Rather than a fear of being embarrassed by others, it's marked by a fear of one’s appearance, physical body, or actions offending others.

Taijin kyofusho is a recognized disorder in Japan but does not precisely meet the criteria of any particular diagnosis in Western culture, so healthcare professionals here usually treat it like social phobia.

3. Koro

Koro is a phobia specific to Asian males. It's the fear of the genitals retracting into the body, eventually leading to death.

Koro is unusual in Western thought in that it involves elements of multiple types of disorders. The fact that it produces extreme fear makes it an anxiety disorder, and since it's regarding a strange physical symptom, it can be qualified as a somatoform disorder. Because such a physical condition is unheard of, koro as a possible delusional disorder as well.

Koro meets many but not all of the DSM-5 criteria for a phobia. It's classified as a "related disorder" under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders in the DSM-5.

Continued Research Is Necessary

As we move toward a global society, mental health professionals from every cultural background will work with clients whose worldviews are far different from their own. Only through continued research will we be able to understand how culture can impact anxiety in order so we can have a more complete picture of global mental health.

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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.