There are 53 million Hispanics or Latinos in the United States and all are distinct culturally based on their country of origin. Hispanic people are the largest minority in the United States; only Mexico has a larger Hispanic population than the United States. As demographics shift in the United States, ensuring appropriate communication with different populations is becoming increasingly necessary. Understanding and respecting the significance of different cultures is necessary to providing safe, high-quality care for patients.
This post will be part of a series dedicated to the cultural nuances that I have encountered in hopes of sharing stories that will be educational, and sometimes entertaining, for fellow health communicators. I hope to create an ongoing conversation on a topic that is pertinent to our everyday interactions with patients, and I encourage you to share your own experiences.
Growing up in Hispanic family in Miami, I learned not to stress an older woman like abuela, or she would suffer from un ataque de nervios. It wasn’t until a few years ago, while speaking with a patient, that I learned that there was no English translation and that nervios is a completely culturally-bound syndrome, one that is especially common to those of Hispanics with Caribbean origin.
Literally translated as “attack of the nerves,” symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack, but they are not the same. It can present differently from person to person, but it is far more likely to occur in women. In general, however, most cases have a similar resemblance.
An “attack” might show some of the following symptoms:
- Intense Fear
- Inability to Move
- Uncontrollable Screaming
- Uncontrollable Crying
- Sensation of Heat Rising from Chest to Head
- Verbal Attacks
- Physical Aggression
- Chest Tightness or Pain
- Heart Palpitations
Shocking or upsetting news is the most common trigger to cause ataque de nervios, especially when that information is related to a family member. Those prone to suffering from anxiety can develop this syndrome. In extreme cases, it is often treated as panic or anxiety disorder. Behavioral therapy can help patients recognize the behavior and teach them coping skills and are most effective in a cultural-sensitive setting. In many cases, there are cardiovascular issues occurring simultaneously, such as high blood pressure or a racing pulse that might require medical attention.
In a clinical study, 76% Hispanic subjects seeking treatment at an anxiety disorders clinic (N = 156) were assessed to have had ataque de nervios in their lifetime. Non-Hispanic clinicians need to be knowledgeable of the culture in order to provide competent care. Many Hispanics are new to the US and are adapting to a new culture, which can be stressful. As a result, it is very likely that you will be able to identify with a patient who has this psychological syndrome, if haven’t already.