Research suggests that there are many commonalities in the way that people from different cultures react to traumatic events. For example, people’s physiological responses to danger are broadly similar all over the world, and PTSD has been identified among survivors of traumatic events across many different cultures.
However, there are also important differences among cultures in how various events are experienced and how trauma is expressed and understood. Research suggests that the following trauma-related symptoms are likely to be experienced and expressed differently across different cultures:
- Dissociation (feeling separated or detached from yourself, those around you, and memories of the event)
- Somatization (experiencing physical symptoms of pain and distress that don’t seem to have a physical cause and which appear to be related primarily to psychological difficulties)
Some researchers suggest that somatization and dissociation are more common elements of trauma in non-Westerners than in Westerners (Kirmayer, 1996). Other differences seem to be more culture specific. For example, Tibetan refugees displayed the common trauma symptom of guilt far less than Western researches expected – perhaps because the English word “guilt” does not have a Tibetan equivalent (Terheggen et al., 2001).
It is important to remember that an individual’s interpretation, experience, and expression of trauma are shaped by culture, social context, and personal history. Humanitarian workers from non-western cultural backgrounds will find it especially helpful to keep the following questions in mind as they continue with this module. Westerners living and working internationally should take the time to consider stress and self-care concepts in their host culture (Fawcett, 2003, p.209).
- What constitutes trauma and stress in this culture? How are trauma and stress conceptualized? What words are used to describe stress and trauma? Is there a concept of individual stress and trauma in this culture, or is it experienced and understood mainly through family and group processes?
- How is trauma typically experienced in this culture? What are typical indicators of trauma in this culture (physical, emotional, mental, relational, spiritual, or behavioral)? How is trauma usually expressed in this culture?
- What have people from this culture traditionally done to cope with trauma and promote healing? What is the role of the individual or the community in coping with trauma? Which individual, social, and cultural mechanisms are typically used to help promote healing?
Next: Risk and protective factors