MODULE ONE | Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress

PART THREE | Cultural Issues

Traumatic stress is not just a problem for western humanitarian workers who relocate (usually temporarily) to developing countries and disaster zones for the sake of their job. In fact, the majority of humanitarian workers worldwide are from non-western cultural backgrounds, working in their home country. These national humanitarian workers are not exempt from experiencing traumatic stress.

Physiological and emotional responses to disaster are broadly similar all over the world. However, an individual’s interpretation of stress and trauma is shaped to some extent by culture, social context, and personal experience. It is important to acknowledge that there are differences across cultures in how events are experienced and how traumatic stress is expressed.

Humanitarian workers from non-western backgrounds reading this module will find it helpful to keep the following questions in mind as they progress through the rest of the study text. There are many commonalities across cultures in signs and symptoms of stress, and effective self-care techniques. However, there are some important differences too. For example, an individual from West Africa may experience and readily discuss physical signs of stress and tension, but feel much less comfortable discussing emotional reactions. In another example, seeking solitude may be a very effective self-care technique for people from Finland. Someone from India, however, may not find solitude helpful and energizing, but strange and discomforting. Westerners living and working internationally should also take the time to consider stress and self-care concepts in regards to their host culture.

  • What constitutes stress and trauma in the life of this culture? For example, how is stress conceptualized? Is there a concept of individual stress in this culture or is it experienced and understood mainly through family and group processes?
  • How is stress typically experienced in this culture? What are typical indicators of stress? Does stress tend to be experienced physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, spiritually or through behavior? How is stress usually expressed in this culture?
  • What have people from this culture traditionally done to deal with stress? What is the role of the individual or the community in managing stress? What individual, social and cultural, oral and behavioral mechanisms are typically used to deal with stress?
© Headington Institute 2007