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Psych Snippet: Stendhal Syndrom, Fictitious Disorder, and Ghost Sickness

Updated on July 9, 2020

An Overdose of Beauty: Stendhal Syndrome

In 1817, French author Marie-Henri Beyle, who penned his works under the name Stendhal, toured the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. While there, he was overpowered by the structure’s brilliant splendor, apparently to the extent that he became physically ill. Almost 200 years later, Dr. Graziella Magherini witnessed Stendhal’s unexpected reaction in 106 foreign patients treated in Florence. Each instance, in which an individual was exposed to art, featured a sudden onset of physical and mental symptoms, which persisted between 2-8 days. The most common of said symptoms were excessive perspiration, weakness, confusion, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, delusions, and dissociative experiences.

It is believed that having such a response to artwork, coined Stendhal syndrome by Dr. Magherini, is due to the traveler -usually European in origin- attempting to process a culture that varies significantly from his or her own. Similar conditions are Paris syndrome and Jerusalem syndrome. The former, defined in 1986 by psychiatrist Hiroaki Ota, is a comparable phenomenon, in which visitors to Paris presented symptoms akin to those afflicted with Stendhal syndrome. The latter, while sharing some characteristics with the aforementioned diagnoses, additionally involves delusions of grandeur and messianic ideations in persons touring the holy land.

Those afflicted by the syndrome generally recover on their own after several days.

Dying to be Sick: Factitious Disorder

Factitious disorder, a term that is often interchanged with Munchausen syndrome, refers to individuals who embellish or fabricate a medical condition, deliberately produce medical symptoms, and/ or self-induce an illness. It is not certain what prompts a person to assume the sick role; researchers believe that common causes are perhaps rooted in early-childhood illness, identifying with others who are ill, adolescent trauma, or the desire to receive care and attention.

An extension of this syndrome is factitious disorder imposed on another (FDIA), or Munchausen by proxy. The same methods used to falsely claim a personal illness or injury is instead projected upon others, generally those to whom they are closest. FDIA most often occurs in mothers, who inflict intentionally harm onto their children to satiate a need for attention or sympathy.

In direct contrast to the abstract motives of patients with factitious disorder or FDIA are malingerers, who feign illness as means to a discernable end, such as gaining disability benefits or receiving drugs. Malingerers may falsify all symptoms or simply exaggerate a pre-existing condition.

There is no definitive cure for factitious disorder, but psycotherapy is heavily relied upon, with an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapy.

A Variation of Mourning: Ghost Sickness

In Antiquity, the belief that human illnesses were caused by ghosts or evil forces was global. In response to this manner of thinking, people strived to satiate the dead. If unable to do so, a once-friendly spirit could become malevolent and inflict harm upon the living.

A contemporary continuation of this tradition can be found in many Native American cultures and is referred to as ghost sickness. While minute details may vary from tribe to tribe, the gist of the illness is solid: a person is harmed by a spirit, usually a family member, and experience a litany of manifestations thereafter. Symptoms include partial paralysis of the face, fatigue, lack of appetite, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, hallucinations, nightmares, constant fear, and anxiety.

Ghost sickness is attributed to several causes, which vary between cultures. Some tribes, like the Navajo, believe that the attachment between the ghost and living, due to mourners maintaining a connection with those who have passed on by persistently thinking about them or attempting to contact them, is the catalyst. Others believe the illness is prompted by a flawed burial or having the funeral ceremony performed by the wrong person.

In order to avoid the possibility of contracting ghost sickness, some tribes, like the Apache, approached burial quickly, burning the possessions and home of the deceased. Family members would additionally relocate as to confuse the spirit, making it unable to find them. Yet, if such measures were unsuccessful, and an individual has been afflicted with the illness, there is still hope for recovery. Treatments, which are not usually provided by western medicine, include peyote ceremonies, evil chasing (burning safe and purifying the area in which the spirit resides), prayer, and other traditional practices.

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