What Is Stendhal Syndrome?
In 1817 the French writer Stendhal experienced a kind of psychological overflow when visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce. He did so when contemplating the fresco of Volterrano’s Sibyls for a long period of time. The author described experiencing palpitations, anguish, ecstasy, and loss of balance after leaving the Basilica. As a result, the psychiatrist Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal Syndrome in 1989.
He did so after reporting a total of 106 patients admitted to the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence between 1977 and 1986 after visiting local art. All of them shared psychiatric symptoms related to anxiety, psychosis, and paranoia.
Initially, his findings went unnoticed, but after the release of the 1996 film Stendhal Syndrome, directed by Dario Argento, he gained popularity in the media and with the general public.
Notes on Stendhal syndrome
The first thing to point out is that Stendhal syndrome has received little interest from the scientific community. There are few studies on it and it isn’t included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Generally speaking, Stendhal syndrome didn’t first come about with Stendhal, rather it was something that had been reported for centuries.
For example, it’s well known that religious pilgrims who traveled to places like Mecca or Santiago de Compostela experienced changes in their behavior and their thinking as a result of the exaltation they felt.
Speaking of religious pilgrims, keep in mind that many of these develop what is known as Jerusalem syndrome. Experts have found that the latter doesn’t always occur in people with previous psychiatric disorders.
Writers and philosophers such as Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Immanuel Kant, Carl Gustav Jung, and Sigmund Freud reported similar experiences. As you can see, Stendhal syndrome has always existed, and it isn’t something that affects everyone equally or with the same intensity. Researchers don’t consider it a psychiatric disorder, despite people believing it is.
Features of Stendhal syndrome
The main characteristic of Stendhal syndrome is that it’s a phenomenon that only affects tourists. Certainly, and as has been described for decades, those who experience the different psychiatric symptoms are the tourists who visit emblematic cities, their museums, and their works of art; the residents don’t have the same experience.
This is how Graziella Magherini described it first. It’s very reminiscent of what is known as Paris syndrome, which describes the psychiatric symptoms that some tourists develop when traveling to the French capital (this time because of its disappointment, and not because of its beauty). Paris syndrome isn’t experienced by Parisians, which is in line with Stendhal syndrome.
Regarding its symptoms, a variety of manifestations have been described. They are generally divided into the following types:
- Thought disorders: Changes in the perception of colors and sounds are the most common. This can lead to confusion, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
- Affective disorders: Here we include euphoria, ecstasy, aggression, irritability, sadness, depression, and feelings of inferiority among others. They can cause crying too.
- Anguish and panic: Only a small number of tourists who develop Stendhal syndrome have panic attacks and the characteristic symptoms of anxiety disorder. Namely, rapid heartbeat, confusion, anxiety, lack of concentration, racing thoughts, sweating, fatigue, and inability to act.
Despite this, the symptoms are very varied and there’s no single manifestation of the syndrome. To better understand it, we can cite a study published in BMJ Case Reports in 2009. The researchers reported the changes in a 72-year-old creative artist and graduate in Fine Arts who, after traveling to Florence, developed a series of psychiatric disorders.
The first of these occurred on the Ponte Vecchio, where he experienced a panic attack and an alteration in his perception of time. The episode lasted only a few minutes, although psychotic experiences followed.
For example, he thought he was being monitored by international airlines and that they were bugging his hotel. Since then, in moments of stress, some of these symptoms come to the surface.
What can be done to control the syndrome?
There’s no standardized treatment or way to deal with Stendhal syndrome. Many of the people who develop it have a history of psychiatric episodes in the past, with anxiety, depression, or chronic stress, among other things. In some cases, but not all, the syndrome is connected with this type of manifestations.
As Graziella Magherini has pointed out, the apparent solution to the syndrome is to immediately steer clear of the place, painting, or work of art that has caused the symptoms. If possible, end the trip and return to your country of origin. Of course, the latter is a radical solution, and trying to prevent the catalyst of symptoms may be enough.
To do so, you can try breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other strategies to try to calm the anxiety and panic. The signs are always transitory, so they shouldn’t last for a long time. There are no formal explanations for the syndrome, although culture shock and a variety of expectations may be behind it.It might interest you...