Hwabyeong, literally ‘anger illness’ or ‘fire illness,’ is a Korean culture-bound somatization disorder (e.g. panic disorder), a mental illness. It manifests as one or more of a wide range of physical symptoms, in response to emotional disturbance, such as stress from troublesome interpersonal relationships or life crises. It most often occurs in middle-aged, menopausal women with relatively low socio-economic status. The individuals typically live in traditional families, which stress the value of males while devaluing women, and in which a woman’s virtue is to quietly bear misfortune and unhappiness while maintaining harmony.

Hwabyung is believed to be caused by a build-up of unresolved anger, which disturbs the balance of the five bodily elements. The triggering cause is external events, particularly intra-familiar stressors such as spousal infidelity and conflict with in-laws. Because of the cultural emphasis on familial harmony and peace, expressing anger is not acceptable, so the anger is suppressed, and builds on itself over time. The suppressed anger, hate and despair is known as ‘han,’ or ‘everlasting woe.’

Behavior related to hwabyeong includes sighing. In addition, sufferers might report such symptoms as a heavy feeling in the chest, perceived abdominal mass (previously thought to define the illness, but now believed to be atypical), sleeplessness, hot or cold flashes, and blurred vision. They may also demonstrate typical neurotic symptoms such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, as well as anorexia, paranoia or fearfulness, absent-mindedness and irritability. Western doctors are likely to diagnose it as a kind of stress or depression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders currently lists hwabyeong among its culture-bound illnesses. Outside of Korea, informally, hwabyeong may be mistaken as a reference to a psychological profile marked by a short temper, or explosive, generally bellicose behavior. To the contrary, hwabyeong is a traditional psychological term used to refer to a condition characterized by passive suffering, is roughly comparable to depression, and is typically associated with older women.

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