FOSTERING EMOTIONAL “IMMUNITY” TO TERROR AND TRAUMA: RITUAL AS A SOURCE OF HEALTH RESILIENCE FOR INDIGENOUS INDIAN CONSERVATION REFUGEES

Friday, November 18

5:00 PM – 5:15 PM

Hilton, Room: Salon B

Presenting Author: Jeffrey Snodgrass Colorado State University

I assess the attentional mechanisms and psychosomatic processes by which ritual practice produces mental health resilience among Indigenous Sahariya recently displaced from a central Indian wildlife sanctuary. Structured psychiatric scale and salivary analyte data (the stress hormone cortisol) collected during Sahariya celebrations of the Hindu holidays Holi and Navratri point to substantial post-ritual health improvements. Ethnography reveals that these two rituals first invoke evil, terror, and uncertainty—demons and witches, familial and community tensions—in order to subsequently defeat them. Critically, religious frames of meaning—cultural invitations—lead Sahariya to interpret the ritualistically invoked threats, as well as their own psychosomatic stress and arousal, in positive (eustressful) terms as part of a righteous battle against evil. Despite summoning capricious and powerful threats, which echo these conservation refugees’ felt insecurity, the Sahariya end up feeling protected by God and their fellow villagers, in whom they place faith and trust. I suggest that inciting terror in this ritual context diverts these refugees’ attention away from their precarious situation and toward hidden sources of strength and resilience. And this process helps Sahariya learn to better manage the stress in their daily lives. Here, positive psychological “resilience” responses to even negative emotions can also be learned and kindled, provoking something like immune responses, rendering one less (rather than more) susceptible to future compromised mental health. And ritual sources of health resilience are particularly important for subaltern peoples like the Sahariya for whom potentially debilitating distress and seemingly insurmountable uncertainty are part of everyday existence.

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