Art can bring up many emotions, including joy, sadness, and anger. But is it possible to have significant mental or physical symptoms after an encounter with a piece of art?

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as an art attack. The more official name is Stendhal syndrome.

Read on to learn more about how common Stendhal syndrome is, its symptoms, and treatment options, as well as the science behind this condition.

Stendhal syndrome refers to a collection of intense physical and mental symptoms you may experience while or after viewing a work of art.

According to 2021 research, it’s considered a psychosomatic disorder. This means you may have intense psychological symptoms that also cause physical ones.

Stendhal syndrome was first described in 1989 by Graziella Magherini, an Italian psychiatrist, note researchers of 2020 overview of the condition.

The word “Stendhal” comes from the name of romance author Marie-Henri Beyle’s pseudonym. Beyle himself described an overwhelming encounter in 1817 during a visit to Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce, according to the 2021 research mentioned earlier.

This condition is also sometimes called “Florentine syndrome,” according to researchers in 2018. This is because Magherini came up with it while working at a hospital in Florence where she treated more than 100 visitors after they experienced symptoms from looking at art in the area, per the aforementioned 2021 research.

Another name for the condition is aesthetic sickness.

Though Magherini coined the term just over 3 decades ago, the symptoms and experiences associated with Stendhal syndrome are not new. Even some historical figures are thought to have experienced Stendhal syndrome in the past, including psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, according to the researchers in 2018.

While considered a well-documented condition, Stendhal syndrome is not included in the latest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

How rare is Stendhal syndrome?

While the exact incidence isn’t known, Stendhal syndrome is considered extremely rare, per the 2018 researchers. Specific triggers for the condition may vary because the perception of beauty is highly individual. It’s mostly seen in single adults ages 26 to 40, suggests the 2021 research mentioned earlier.

Additionally, the researchers of the 2020 condition overview believe that Stendhal syndrome may depend on region since more cases have been reported in Europe than in the rest of the world. It may also be experienced among tourists who visit art museums and other cultural destinations, these researchers suggest.

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Stendhal syndrome is said to develop as a result of encountering something overwhelmingly beautiful.

Visual and architectural arts are the most common causes, according to researchers in 2018. Other items in your natural environment, such as a beautiful sunrise or a breathtaking mountain view, could also bring it on.

Yet it’s more than just the visual beauty or art that causes Stendhal syndrome. Other factors include being in a historically or culturally relevant location, as well as thinking about significant events of the past, per 2020 research.

Stendhal syndrome most commonly occurs among travelers to cities that are known for art museums, historical architecture, and cultural centers, the 2020 research suggests. These cities may include:

  • Athens
  • Florence
  • Paris
  • Rome
  • Tokyo

Previous research also noted that having an “impressionable personality” combined with stress and travel could be a risk factor for experiencing Stendhal syndrome, per the 2020 research. Researchers also note that it’s not clear whether having any underlying conditions could be related.

Certain environmental and lifestyle factors could increase your risk, with the researchers in 2018 noting a higher incidence of Stendhal syndrome in people who are single, very religious, or reaching the end of a travel journey.

Other possible risk factors for Stendhal syndrome may be travel-related, the 2018 researchers suggest. These factors can include:

Symptoms of Stendhal syndrome may be both mental and physical. They come about when you experience a work of art. Some of these symptoms can mimic those of a panic attack.

Symptoms may include:

The 2021 research mentioned earlier suggests that the thrilling, yet overwhelming nature of Stendhal syndrome may feel like meeting all of your heroes at the same time.

Why does art make people cry?

The adage goes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — and in some instances, art literally brings you to tears.

According to a 2015 study, crying is considered a typical biological response to the cognitive process you may go through when you encounter something aesthetically appealing. This can include paintings, sculptures, music, and more.

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The symptoms of Stendhal syndrome are considered temporary and usually don’t require any medical treatment.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed from encountering a work of art, you may be able to resolve your symptoms by taking a break and removing yourself from the area. If you still feel uneasy, consider practicing some gentle grounding techniques, like deep breathing or doing a body scan meditation.

If you or a loved one do display possible symptoms, such as confusion or fainting, it’s important to help prevent and treat injuries that might happen as a result. In these situations, seek medical attention.

You may also wish to speak with a doctor if you have concerns about your experience and want confirmation that you did have Stendhal syndrome. A doctor can also help with any differential diagnoses, such as anxiety disorders.

While there is no established treatment for Stendhal syndrome, you may consider talking with a doctor about treatment for psychosomatic disorders more generally if you experience symptoms frequently.

Possible options include cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants, according to 2017 research.

Harness your breath

Breathing exercises are one of the simplest ways to help calm your emotions and check in with your body. The next time you feel anxious or overwhelmed, try out the following breath pattern:

  1. Breathe in for four seconds
  2. Hold your full breath for 1 second
  3. Breathe out for six seconds
  4. Hold your empty breath for 1 second
  5. Repeat cycle

Click here to learn more useful breath patterns for lowering stress and anxiety.

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Stendhal syndrome is considered rare, but once you have experienced it, you may have a greater chance of experiencing it again in the future, especially if you encounter an emotionally appealing piece of artwork, according to the 2020 research mentioned earlier.

If you plan on traveling to a destination where you may be exposed to historical art pieces, you may consider getting plenty of rest beforehand to help reduce the risk of Stendhal syndrome. You should also let anyone traveling with you know that you may need assistance and how to best help you.

Stendhal syndrome isn’t considered deadly, though symptoms like confusion or fainting could cause injury.

The 2020 research notes that one person in 2018 did have a heart attack while viewing historical art in Florence. But it’s unclear whether this occurred due to Stendhal syndrome or unrelated factors, and more research on this topic is still needed to better understand its causes and effects.

If you experience symptoms of this rare syndrome on a regular basis or whenever you encounter a perceived beautiful work of art, you may consider talking with a doctor about how to manage symptoms.

Stendhal syndrome was first described in the late 1980s as a condition where an overwhelming experience with art can make you feel ill.

While more clinical research needs to be done, it’s thought that certain risk factors may increase your chances of experiencing this syndrome. These include age, travel destination, and sleep deprivation.

The effects of Stendhal syndrome are temporary, but it’s also possible to get injured while experiencing it. Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about experiencing this condition while traveling, especially if you have a history of possible symptoms.