How we view anger is affected by our society and culture

Psychological and emotional concerns are far from the same the world over; they are affected by the society and culture within which we live. In this way, culturally-specific ideas of ‘correct’ behaviour, including the ‘right’ responses to difficulties in life, can produce culturally-specific effects. That’s the case with ‘Hwabyung’ (‘fire sickness’), whose diagnosis is specific to Korea and which, as a phenomenon, can be viewed as a manifestation of Korean culture, values and history. 'Fire sickness' is a phenomenon specific to Korea

Korean expectations from life are in direct contrast with Western values of individualism, personal achievement, independence and self-reliance. Koreans place great stress on the community, putting the common good above any individual need or concern. Any personal grumbles, even serious anxieties in the face of problems, are put aside for the sake of harmony and good relationships within the group.

In this way, anger is viewed like fire: in the same way that flames must be suppressed to prevent their growing out of control and causing a damaging blaze, anger must be confined within the person so that it does not jeopardize family or social relationships. The problem arises when unfair situations continue chronically, feeding the flames of anger and causing it to rise out of control.

The concept of Hwabyung seems to have been shaped by Korean people’s socio-cultural experiences throughout history. Such historical experiences have developed a unique, collective emotional reaction called ‘Haan’, which is a chronic suppressed anger resulting not only from the tragic collective national history, but also from a traumatic personal life. Accordingly, Hwabyung shares many components with Haan and seems to be a pathologic form of Haan.

Hwabyung manifests itself in physical ways. The list of accepted symptoms read a lot like a list of Western signs associated with stress, depression, anxiety: various aches and pains, a feeling of pressure on the chest. In addition, someone with hwabyung will also have difficulty getting sufficient sleep, feels tired all the time and reports a strong feeling of hopelessness.

Traditional Korean medicine diagnosed this ‘sickness’ long before psychology or psychiatry came on the scene. It was accepted that the body could react painfully strongly to the troubles of the mind, which seek an expression somehow, after possibly many years of being forbidden any sort of outlet.

An excess of ‘fire’ in the individual causes an imbalance in the body. Commonly, troubles are connected to a sense of injustice, of being unfairly treated by a relation, or of being betrayed by the social group, which builds resentment.

To preserve harmony, according to Korean values, this resentment cannot even be articulated, let alone redressed. In studies, Koreans diagnosed with hwabyung have been able to pinpoint precisely why they feel the ‘fire sickness’ and as one reviewer states, ‘Most patients know already that their hwabyung is a psychogenic disorder.’

Various ‘therapies’ are traditionally offered to people with Hwabyung, by herbal medicine doctors, or perhaps by shamans, and some of them are close to Western-style counselling, or listening.

There are creative strands to the therapy – for example, if someone can trace their feelings to sadness about their lack of education, they may be helped by making cash donation to a school, or by starting a course of learning even in old age.

It may be that as Korea becomes increasingly more Westernised, Hwabyung will start to be seen by Koreans themselves as closer to depression or anger, as Western psychiatrists define it.

The House Partnership, 23rd October 2011