Culture and Panic Disorder

Culture and Panic Disorder

Culture and Panic Disorder

Culture and Panic Disorder


Psychiatric classifications created in one culture may not be as universal as we assume, and it is difficult to determine the validity of a classification even in the culture in which it was created. Culture and Panic Disorder explores how the psychiatric classification of panic disorder first emerged, how medical theories of this disorder have shifted through time, and whether or not panic disorder can actually be diagnosed across cultures.

In this breakthrough volume a distinguished group of medical and psychological anthropologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and historians of science provide ethnographic insights as they investigate the presentation and generation of panic disorder in various cultures. The first available work with a focus on the historical and cross-cultural aspects of panic disorders, this book presents a fresh opportunity to reevaluate Western theories of panic that were formerly taken for granted.


Any consideration of the origins and functions of the emotions of anxiety and fear would presuppose that these must be universal phenomena. Since the time of Darwin we have assumed that evolution should favor members of a species who are anxious and fearful, and recent research has established that these two emotions are at least partially distinct, with different functions (Suárez et al. in press). Many theorists, such as Howard Liddell (1949), make the case that anxiety represents the ability of individuals to plan for the future and be vigilant for possible upcoming threats or challenges. Fear, on the other hand, is the more dramatic emotion, scientifically observed by Darwin as a “flight-fight” response to immediate and imminent threat or danger. Of course predispositions to experience anxiety and fear and the resulting action tendencies should be normally distributed across the population, meaning that certain numbers of individuals will present with excesses of these traits or, at the very least, lower thresholds for their expressions.

It has also become clear in the past thirty years that the fundamental and protective emotion of fear occurring at inappropriate times (when there is nothing to be afraid of) is a substantial problem in psychopathology. This inappropriate expression of fear has come to be called panic (or a panic attack) (Barlow 2002). Thus, it has been assumed that the experiences of anxiety and fear and their occasional excesses or inappropriate expressions such as panic exist in nearly all cultures and subcultures.

In fact, the excitement of a new, more objective study of anxiety and panic that began in the early 1980s is nicely described in this volume because one of the editors . . .

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