A Look at Culture-Specific Phobias

Understanding the Link Between Phobias, Behavior, and Culture

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Anxiety disorders are fairly common worldwide, affecting an estimated 16.6% of the world population each year. Many phobias are common across all groups, transcending age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Examples of these phobias can be found at Top 10 Common Phobias. Other phobias, however, appear almost exclusively among particular cultural groups.

Culture-Specific Phobias and Fear Responses

Here we will examine three culture-specific phobias (or conditions that act much like phobias) that appear to be unique to the culture of those who reported suffer from them: ataque de nervios, taijin kyofusho, and koro.

1. Ataque de Nervios

The fear response known as ataque de nervios appears almost exclusively among Hispanic people. The condition is much more prevalent in females than in males. Its symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable Screaming
  • Uncontrollable Crying
  • Inability to Move
  • Fainting
  • Loss of Memory

Ataque de nervios shares many symptoms with a panic attack or phobia. However, panic attacks tend to occur in situations that are not inherently frightening and a phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something specific.

Where this condition deviates from our understanding of phobia-related panic attacks is that ataque de nervios is generally triggered by a situation that most people would consider frightening. However, the severity of the reaction is much worse than most people experience. Additionally, people who experience ataque de nervios generally do not fear encountering a similar situation in the future.

2. Taijin Kyofusho

The condition known as taijin kyofusho appears almost exclusively among those of Japanese descent, and much less often among other Asian cultures. The condition is almost an exact reversal of social phobia. Rather than a fear of being embarrassed by others, it is marked by a fear of one’s appearance or physical body offending others.

Taijin kyofusho is a recognized disorder in Japan but does not precisely meet the criteria of any particular diagnosis in Western culture.

3. Koro

Koro is a phobia specific to Asian males. The specific fear is of the genitals retracting into the body, eventually leading to death.

Koro is unusual in Western thought, in that it involves elements of multiple types of disorders. The fact that it produces extreme fear makes it an anxiety disorder. The fact that the fear is of a strange physical symptom qualifies it as a somatoform disorder. The fact that such a physical condition is unheard of marks koro as a possible delusional disorder as well.

Koro meets many but not all of the DSM-5 criteria for a phobia. However, more research into the phenomenon is necessary to determine whether this is the most appropriate diagnosis for this rare culturally-limited fear.


As we move toward a global society, mental health professionals from every cultural background will work with clients whose worldviews are far different from their own. Only through continued research will we be able to continuously update our information to provide ​a more complete picture of global mental health.


Friedman, Steven. Cultural Issues in the Treatment of Anxiety. 1997. New York: Guilford Press.

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