Culture as a Chronic Stressor

Posted by: Farah Lodi on March 12, 2014 4:06 pm

When we think of culture, we usually think about language, food, art, customs and rituals. Culture is the spice of life and generally enriches our lives, right? That’s one way to view culture.

But sometimes teenagers and young adults feel conflicted by the differing demands and expectations of the globalized monoculture versus their own culture. And I’m not just talking about minority cultures – even in communities where the dominant culture is conservative or collectivist, many people are still influenced by the appeal of Western pop-culture. Erik Erikson described the driving force for adolescents as individual identity versus identity confusion. Many of my clients readily identify as coming from traditional, conservative cultures, seemingly comfortable with this view of self. But the reality is that culture is a chronic stressor in their lives. The World Health Organization has described depression as the next global epidemic. I believe culture-based stress is a factor leading to high rates of mental and emotional problems.

In my practice I see teenagers who are taught to respect their parents above all else. Some develop codependency traits as they focus on family needs and neglect their own needs. Their sense of self is  closely tied to heritage – but they are pulled in an opposite direction when seduced by the allure of independence, individualism and fewer boundaries. Tasting the pleasures of forbidden fruits triggers the cycle of excitement, guilt, and shame. Rather than the spice of life, culture becomes a red-hot chili pepper, stinging and burning as they try to make sense of this internal conflict – the tug of war between loyalty to culture, or to self.  This dissonance manifests as anxiety and depression. Their culture is a stressor.

Another group of my clients are depressed single women in their late thirties, stigmatized by their cultural view that a woman’s identity should be linked to being a wife and mother. In counseling these clients present with secure early attachments, no apparent traumas, no other external stressors – aside from cultural expectations which become triggers for low self-worth.

In my view, the evolutionary process of adaptation needs to be applied to culture as well. I’m not endorsing a melting pot – I’m just saying that black and white thinking can lead to stress. So I ask my clients if they can be a bit more flexible with their beautiful cultures, hold onto basic values, but be a bit more accepting of change and different environments. Live life in the grey area……it’s more palatable.




*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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