‘We don’t talk about it’: Anxiety through the South Asian lens

In the South Asian community, the conversation surrounding mental health, particularly anxiety, often remains complicated by cultural intricacies and societal expectations. Unlike conventional narratives, it's important to acknowledge that anxiety within this demographic transcends individual experiences, intertwining with familial dynamics and cultural pressures.


Cultural context

As a South Asian therapist, almost 90% of my clients are from BIPOC backgrounds. Why? Because it’s hard to find a therapist who understands the cultural nuances of South Asian communities. For instance, within these communities, anxiety is deeply entrenched in cultural norms and familial dynamics, shaping individuals' perceptions and responses to mental health challenges.

The collectivist nature (all of us is greater than one of us) of South Asian societies often prioritises collective well-being over individual needs, leading to the suppression of personal distress and emotional struggles. Moreover, the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health issues perpetuates a culture of silence and shame, making it challenging for individuals to seek help or openly discuss their experiences.

The high value placed on family ‘honour’ and social status means it can be exhausting! Understanding these cultural intricacies is important in addressing anxiety effectively within South Asian communities. As a therapist, it's important to create culturally sensitive approaches that honour clients’ backgrounds and values while also adopting the best approach for treatment.

Do cultural beliefs influence anxiety?

Absolutely! In South Asian communities, cultural beliefs and practices exert a profound influence on the understanding and management of anxiety.

Influence of religion and spirituality: Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many South Asians, providing solace, guidance, and a framework for understanding life's challenges, including anxiety. Religious rituals, prayers, and spiritual practices are often utilised as coping mechanisms to reduce distress and create a sense of connection and purpose. However, conflicting beliefs or perceived religious inadequacies may also contribute to feelings of guilt, exacerbating anxiety symptoms. This may also mean that they shy away from more mainstream approaches.

Traditional healing modalities

South Asian cultures have a rich tradition of holistic healing practices that encompass physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Ayurveda, yoga, and meditation are integral components of traditional healing systems, offering holistic approaches to addressing anxiety. As a South Asian therapist myself, I can relate to this in my own practice. For instance, In the South Asian culture, yoga (India’s greatest gift to the world!) is the complete package when it comes to trauma - mindful movement, intentional breathwork, somatic awareness and learning to sit with discomfort.

After a long day of sessions, particularly when I’m working with clients dealing with complex trauma and abuse, I use a mindful movement practice to help process all of the things that come up within me while holding this therapeutic space.

Honour, stigma and secrecy

If you’re a South Asian, you must have heard at some point, “Lekin log kya kahenge?” (“But what will people say?”)

The concept of honour, or "izzat" in many South Asian languages, holds immense significance within the community, influencing individuals' behaviours, decisions, and relationships. Anxiety may be perceived as a threat to familial honour, leading to secrecy, denial, or avoidance of seeking professional help. The fear of bringing shame or disgrace to the family can act as a barrier to acknowledging and addressing mental health concerns openly.

Coping and resilience

Despite the challenges faced by South Asians in managing anxiety and other mental health challenges, the community demonstrates remarkable resilience and possesses unique coping mechanisms rooted in cultural values and traditions. Drawing upon strong familial bonds, social support networks, and cultural resilience, South Asians often employ adaptive strategies to navigate anxiety. By tapping into the sense of shared belonging and interconnectedness, community support networks provide a crucial source of emotional sustenance and validation.

Plus, cultural values such as perseverance, resourcefulness, and spirituality contribute to this resilience, empowering clients to confront adversity and overcome challenges. Recognising and harnessing these inherent strengths helps create and promote culture-affirming therapy.

By incorporating cultural competence into therapy, mental health professionals can create a safe and supportive environment where clients feel understood and valued. Ultimately, culturally sensitive therapy not only enhances treatment outcomes but also fosters trust and collaboration between therapists and clients, facilitating a more enriching and transformative therapeutic experience.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W1W & Sutton SM2
Written by Raisa Luther, Clinical Psychologist | South Asian Therapist
London W1W & Sutton SM2

Raisa is a senior licensed clinical psychologist with over 10 years of experience and specialises in the treatment of anxiety, depression, OCD, trauma, relationship issues and life transitions, particularly within the South Asian community. She is based in London and offers virtual therapy all over the UK.

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