Send to

Choose Destination
Psychol Trauma. 2016 Jul;8(4):468-76. doi: 10.1037/tra0000117. Epub 2016 Mar 31.

Pathological spirit possession as a cultural interpretation of trauma-related symptoms.

Author information

Department of Psychology.
Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz.
vivo international.
Division of Psychiatry, St. Olav's University Hospital.



Spirit possession is a phenomenon frequently occurring in war-torn countries. It has been shown to be an idiom of distress entailing dissociative symptoms. However, its association with trauma exposure and trauma-related disorders remains unclear. This study aimed to explore subjective disease models and the relationship between pathological spirit possession and trauma-related disorders in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Seventy-three (formerly) possessed persons (74% female, mean age = 34 years), referred by traditional and spiritual healers, were interviewed about their experiences of pathological spirit possession, trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, depressive symptoms, shame and guilt, psychotic symptoms, somatic complaints, and the impairment of psychosocial functioning.


The most common disease model for pathological spirit possession was another person having sent the spirit, mostly a family member or a neighbor, out of jealousy or conflict over resources. Significant correlations were found between spirit possession over lifetime and PTSD symptom severity, feelings of shame and guilt, depressive symptoms, somatic complaints, and psychotic symptoms. Spirit possession during the preceding 4 weeks was associated with PTSD symptom severity, impairment of psychosocial functioning, and psychotic symptom severity.


The results of this study indicate that pathological spirit possession is a broad explanatory framework for various subjectively unexplainable mental and physical health problems, including but not limited to trauma-related disorders. Understanding pathological spirit possession as a subjective disease model for various mental and physical health problems may help researchers and clinicians to develop culturally sensitive treatment approaches for affected individuals. (PsycINFO Database Record

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for American Psychological Association
Loading ...
Support Center