If you have the traveling bug, you’ve surely experienced emotional moments ranging from awkward mishaps to culture shock. Looking back at those cultural misunderstandings can definitely make you cringe on occasion. But if you thought your mishaps abroad were terrible, keep reading to find out about some of the rarest travel-related psychological syndromes around.
City of light, love, literature and art, as well as the birthplace of the Rights of Man. Strangers quip witty remarks when you ask them for directions while slender women dressed in Chanel and Louis Vuitton catwalk down the boulevard — or they don’t, in which case you might suffer a traumatic cultural shock that triggers a psychiatric breakdown. With symptoms ranging from giddiness and insomnia to hallucination and breathlessness, it can lead to full-blown depression and, in some cases, hospitalization. This is all part of what’s known as Paris Syndrome.
The phenomenon was first detected in Japanese tourists, whose idealized notions of Parisian culture, fed by Japanese magazines and media, were shattered upon visiting the city. Instead of chic allure, Parisians served them acidic rudeness from waiters as well as strangers on the (less-than-immaculate) streets. The Japanese embassy is contacted every year by an average of a dozen Japanese citizens requiring medical intervention for this syndrome. These individuals are typically diagnosed with schizophrenia and mood swings, usually at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne, an institution working in partnership with the embassy.
Stendhal (Florence) Syndrome
If you’re an aesthetically-inclined person particularly prone to swooning before beautiful artworks, you might be suffering from Stendhal Syndrome. The disorder was named after the French writer who experienced palpitations and near fainting when visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. This psychosomatic malaise, triggering vertigo, hallucinations, tachycardia and disorientation, strikes when sensitive travelers are overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of artworks or even nature itself. The phenomenon isn’t new, but it was declared a syndrome in 1979 by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital regularly handles these cases that require medical intervention.
Jerusalem Syndrome is a behavior adopted by visitors to the Holy City who express religious fervor to the point of delirium and hysteria. While there has been a plethora of anecdotal evidence for centuries, the syndrome itself wasn’t defined until the 1930s, when Heinz Herman, an Israeli psychiatrist, detailed the strange behavior displayed by some visitors to Jerusalem. Surprisingly, some psychiatrists indicate that most of the afflicted are not Jews, Muslims or Catholics, but rather Protestants — many from the United States. Some carry a history of mental instability, but many previously sane tourists lose their grip after arrival. Recovery is usually swift once the stricken leave the city and return home.
Somewhat similar to Jerusalem Syndrome, India Syndrome describes Westerners who are confronted with the abundant spirituality of India and suffer paranoia, schizophrenia, delusions or acute delirium. From psychotic breakdowns by travelers in public spaces, to the body of a Frenchman found dead in a cave after starving himself to death (believing he was Lord Shiva), many Westerners are overwhelmed and overburdened by mystical experiences arising from cultural shock. Religious rituals laden with meaning and context for Indians can be perceived as disturbing, confounding and alienating to travelers, occasionally triggering extreme reactions and leading to repatriation. Once safely returned to their homeland, the afflicted resume normal behavior.
Most of these syndromes have something in common: Culture shock brought on by a lack of preparedness. One of the best strategies to be more culturally aware is to learn a foreign language. Many of the Japanese tourists suffering from Paris Syndrome noted that difficulty communicating in French triggered a sense of alienation and increased anxiety — but these feelings can be combated. Whether you’re just looking to decrease the number of awkward encounters abroad, or you want to stave off a serious traveling syndrome, learning a language can help.