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World Psychology: Psychology by Country · Psychology of Displaced Persons


Susto (aka espanto) is as a folk illness, specifically a "fright sickness" with strong psychological overtones. Susto comes from the Spanish word for "fright" (i.e. Sudden intense fear, as of something immediately threatening). A more severe and potentially fatal form of susto is called espanto (also from Spanish, meaning terror or intense fright). People believe that if a person is suffering from susto, his or her soul is separated from the body[How to reference and link to summary or text].

Those most likely to suffer from susto are culturally stressed adults (women more often than men). Occasionally children can suffer susto as well. Etiology generally includes a sudden frightening experience such as an accident, a fall, witnessing a relative's sudden death, or any other potentially dangerous event. Researches show that knowledge of the existence of susto is a major contributing factor in improving the condition.

Symptoms of susto are thought to include nervousness, anorexia, insomnia, listlessness, despondency, involuntary muscle tics, and diarrhea. Treatments include the consumption of orange blossom, brazil wood or marijuana teas. An oral solution of figs boiled in vinegar is also imagined to be somewhat therapeutic.

The cure that is the most effective is a ceremony known as limpieza (Spanish for "cleansing" (noun)) or barrida (Spanish for "sweeping" (noun)), which may not be entirely successful the first few times it is attempted. The limpia or barrida is considered to be best administered immediately after the traumatic event occurs, and is ideally conducted by a curandero (healer). During the limpia/barrida, the patient recounts the details of the frightening event, then lies down on the floor on the axis of a crucifix. The curandero may have the crucifix outlined with aluminum foil or other shiny material. The victim's body is then brushed with a bouquet of fresh herbs such as basil, purple sage, rosemary or rue, while the curandero and other participants recite prayers. Depending on local custom, the curandero may also jump over the victims's body. This is thought by some to exhort the frightened soul back into the body.

Given the fact that there is not a complete universal understanding of this illness and that the symptoms vary from culture to culture is in part what classifies susto as a folk illness. Some treatment is as simple as drinking tea made from lemon or vinegar but for more severe cases a healer or curandera is brought in to perform specific ceremonies. Traditional Western medicine has not yet recognized susto but there are some similarities between susto and some stress disorders. Many anthropologists feel that susto is the Latin American version of schizophrenia. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “Acute Stress Disorder” in particular share some similarities to the condition known as susto. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV TR(DSM-IV-TR) fourth edition Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is associated with increased rates of "Major Depressive Disorder", "Generalized Anxiety Disorder", and "Social Phobia". The DSM-IV-TR also states that certain forms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can have characteristic symptoms which include diminished participation in significant activities, feeling of detachment from others, and difficulty falling or staying asleep.

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