The science behind ‘Susto’

susto

saludifyBy Hope Gillete, Saludify

Susto is a Latino folk illness based on the popular belief an individual can lose their soul through a frightening experience, resulting in many mental and physical symptoms.

This folk illness is not found among other cultures and is more of a belief rather than a malfunction of the brain.

According to Mind Hacks, “susto’ literally means “fright” in Spanish, but the folk illness associated with the term is much more complex than just subsequentshock or anxiety after a scare has occurred.

Susto is a Latin American folk illness attributed to having an extremely frightening experience, often including ‘soul loss’ as part of the syndrome,” Monnica Williams, Ph.D. licensed clinical psychologist and associate director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, told Saludify. “People afflicted with susto may have symptoms which include nervousness, loss of appetite, insomnia, listlessness, despondency, involuntary muscle tics, and diarrhea.”

William’s explains the symptoms of susto are actually quite similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes anxiety, avoidance, jumpiness, sleep disturbances, and depression.

“When referring to soul loss within susto, a closer meaning to this may actually be loss of ‘vital force,’ as the soul is typically not thought to have actually left the body until death,” she explained. “This could resemble the fatigue and anhedonia which may be a part of depressive symptoms within PTSD. Therefore, the concept of susto as a culture-bound syndrome may be better conceptualized as a culture-specific description of PTSD itself.”

Susto, PTSD, and mental disorders

Williams is not the only expert to compare the symptoms of Latino folk illness susto with PTSD.

Dr. Pam Garcy, a clinical psychologist in Dallas, Texas, and author of How To Make Time When You Don’t Have Any: A New Approach To Reclaiming Your Schedule, told Saludify PTSD is just one of many conditions which may contribute or resemble susto, though it is not correct to say one is the result of the other.“Assuming a traumatic event triggered the symptoms, susto might resemble modern day PTSD, which includes dissociation in reaction to a traumatic event,” said Garcy. “However, it is also important to remember that someone can appear as though their soul has left their body for numerous diagnostic reasons.”

Garcy explains it would be important and expected to rule out medical causes for the someone feeling as if they had lost their soul, and the person would benefit from a good physical.

Because susto is a Latino folk illness, it is a cultural belief and its symptoms may actually be manifestation of many actual mental or physical conditions that need to be looked into, preferably by a culturally competent physician.

For example, she states, there might be a medication that induces this state or a medical condition (such as a brain tumor) that induces the state. Secondarily, it would be important for the person to get a really good psychological work-up including the ruling-out of the following suspects: psychotic disorders, substance abuse disorders, severe depression, psychogenic fugues or amnesia, post-concussive syndrome, disorders on the autism spectrum (if this were an enduring pattern, versus a sudden onset), personality disorders and malingering (especially if there is a secondary gain issue).

Traditional treatment for folk illness susto

As a Latino folk illness, susto has been treated by ritual ceremony for decades.

According to Rice Universitysusto—which can affect anyone but is seen primarily among Latinas—is traditionally treated through oral natural remedies such as teas of orange blossom, Brazil wood or even marijuana. Occasionally, figs boiled in vinegar are also administered.

The most “effective” treatment from a cultural standpoint, however, is that of abarrida, or a “sweeping” ritual. This treatment should be done immediately after the traumatic event occurs and is optimally conducted by a curandero, or shaman, in his or her home.

During the ritual, the individual afflicted with susto must recount their terrifying experience while lying on the axis of a crucifix on the floor. Fresh herbs such as basil, purple sage, rosemary, or rue and egg are then swept over the afflicted’s body while the curandero says a series of prayers, attempting to return the frightened soul to the body. If the first session is not effective, the process is repeated every third day until the patient is healed.

Conventional treatments for susto

While Hispanics are traditionally less likely than other groups to seek mental health treatments, should they visit a medical professional for treatment of susto, treatment would likely consist of psychological counseling as well as medication to combat feelings of depression or other medical symptoms like diarrhea.

A potential cultural barrier exists, however, for conventional treatment of susto. Because it is a Latino folk illness, and its roots found deep in the Hispanic culture, a patient may not believe they can be cured by modern methods, and therefore are not only less likely to seek modern therapies, but less likely to believe they can be cured.

This article was first published in Saludify.

Hope Gillette is an award winning author and novelist. She has been active in the veterinary industry for over 10 years, and her experience extends from exotic animal care to equine sports massage.

[Photo by JesusDQ]

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