How culture can have an influence on dealing with stress

During my work at the university, I met a student from an East Asian country, who was experiencing stress and felt depressed because he was forced by his parents to pursue a major, he did not want to study. This made me realize that stress can be greatly influenced by our cultural environment and vice versa.

Pointing out the concepts which cause these influences to happen can hopefully raise the awareness and help to recognize, prevent, or minimize stressors affecting international students or any other group in transition.


Culture is not in your passport

We often tend to simplify; however, culture is complex, and we can not only refer to nationality or country. Religion, language, work, education, social and or economic status must be considered as well. We all are different, therefore our own culture will create a unique frame of reference, will influence our way of thinking, acting, and communicating both – consciously and subconsciously. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the relation between culture and stress. The challenge is to be aware of what factors, or what combination of factors shape our own cultural reference.


What is stress?

Stress might have a different meaning for everyone. In general terms, stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Long-term stress can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, loneliness, sleep problems, moodiness, pain, and other physical complaints such as muscle tension. Thus, it appears crucial to know the early signs beforehand and identify them as soon as possible. Mental health issues include problems that affect mood, thinking and behaviour. As for the international students there can be many factors causing stress such as getting good grades, making new friends, learning a new language, or adapting to a new environment.

Traditionally, stress is often approached from a pragmatic point of view. For example, the focus of many stress management trainings lies in looking at the way people work, how they prioritize, how efficient they are, how they use their agenda and how to implement a good relaxation practice into it all. To reduce the stress that it is already there is not a bad thing. However, in addition I believe the first step would be rather to understand the source or the cause of stress and this by going back to the roots to approach it constructively. Cultural influence could be one of the roots.


Individualism vs. Collectivism

It is for certain that there may be other different traits or characteristics of culture that can play a role on experiencing stress. I choose to focus on the concepts of individualism and collectivism. In general, western countries are rather individualistic, compared to eastern countries which are regarded as collectivist cultures. However as in any discussion on East and West or any similar divisions, it cannot be omitted that there are always certain nuances and that the lines between them are very subtle.

There are clear differences between these two cultures. Western cultures are often described as individualistic, as cultures which emphasize personal freedom, personal achievements, and the importance of social status – all the factors that help an individual to stand out. People are supposed to express their feelings, preferences, and ideas to get some positive experiences for themselves.

By contrast, in collectivist cultures self-meaning comes from the embeddedness of individuals within a larger group, thus from the context of the individual to a larger group. The most important values are social relationships, a shared way of life, and maintaining the status quo. Conformity is encouraged, and individuals are discouraged from standing out from the crowd. These points can help to understand the difference in defining and recognizing mental health problems

People from collectivist cultures attribute minor mental health problems such as stress, to internal, personal causes and regard these as personal failure. They do not label mental health problems as disorders but as challenges in daily life. In that regard finding a solution is still up to the individual and may result in even higher expectations somebody sets on herself or himself, whilst already having to deal with too much stress.

Whereas Western approach is based on perceiving mental illness as arising from interactions between the person and his/her environment, so outside of the individual. In the West, some minor mental health problems such as stress are considered an illness, which implies that one needs help to get better. This again has an influence on seeking help and treating mental health issues.


Seeking help in different cultures

Cultural values from the East may be against the expectations set on counselling. Instead of encouraging emotional expression, eastern cultures value self-control. Individuals are expected to control and suppress their emotional problems, to place little importance on them, or to have little concern over them. The expectation of openly discussing personal issues with a counselor might be for many not easy. In addition, due to their concerns around shame, fear and face loss, eastern cultures may not seek counselling to avoid being socially stigmatized. Using these services requires admitting the existence of mental health problems and may cause shame on the family if personal issues become public.


Understanding the student

Using the student as a theoretical example, we can say that he and his way of dealing were significantly influenced by eastern values such as respect for parents, conformity, and self-control. His study issues were determined by believing in personal failure, and it was his own challenge he had to face. He was denying mental health problems until it was almost too late, possibly because he felt ashamed or afraid for his parents or family. He eventually did choose to look for help.

Western students in similar scenario tend to admit experiencing mental health issues much quicker and it comes natural to them to make use of professional help from study advisers or study psychologists. It obviously was not as easy for the student, who came from a different background.

Once aware of the possible source of his experiences, the student could then understand better which constructs were causing his feelings of discomfort. In the long run it also helped him to put things in perspective and find a better solution much more effectively.

Culture can have a big impact on mental health, knowing that we shall think of ways to provide relevant support and help. It is crucial to make it more accessible for those who need it before they even realize that they need it.


Danny Otto

MIC Alumni 2020