Maybe Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabians seem to be always angry or at least upset.
Maybe North Korea? North Koreans are probably more afraid than angry.
It’s hard to think of a country where there is more anger every day in almost every part, bubbling under, and sometime popping open like a ripe pimple on a teenager’s face.
Anger is a core emotion, a deep-seated reaction to fear, hurt or sometimes love. It’s rarely a one-dimensional direct transactional emotion. The expression of anger is often a release of an emotional energy that had been accumulating for years, if not decades, and sometimes generations. Internalisation of anger is the cause of depression – a physiological state of sadness. Logically we shouldn’t be suppressing it and internalising it – we should be expressing it straight off the bat. That just doesn’t seem right either.
South Africans have a history dating back to before the colonials’ arrival. The territorial battles fought by proud warrior nations led to displacements and reorganisation of entire tribes along geographical lines of mountains and rivers. Disputes were settled by battles. Cultures were defined by survival of the strongest.
Then a group of funny coloured people, strangely dressed and mostly men, came along and told these proud warriors that they were in fact not that. They were inferior and were meant to serve the master race. They fought back but the war was lost, the land annexed and its people put on a journey that was ultimately to culminate in the reclamation of their land.
Along the way the evolution of the people changed.
What was once a place where disagreement and disputes were expressed through battle and there was little time for anger to ferment, an entire race over many generations was given an opportunity to cultivate a deep-seated anger that had no legitimate outlet till now.
The visitors stayed for many generations and evolved to believe that this was their home too. Other visitors came and yet others were forced to land on these shores as slave labour. Each of these groups came to accept this as their home as they knew no other.
Everything changed and the people took back their country from the visitors and there was jubilation and great celebration. But the anger was still there. It had not been allowed out. When the door finally opened it threatened to gush out and everyone was afraid of what might happen. But there was also joy and jubilation and great people, who didn’t allow the doors to burst open. Instead it leaked out ever so slowly, over a long time, because there was just so much of it.
The visitors and slaves and their many generations of offspring, firmly entrenched, started to believe that their home and freedom was being threatened and they had nowhere to go. They started to get angry too. But they were allowed to express their anger because this new country said it was okay to do so.
The brain is an organ of the human body. It’s pretty complex in its structure and function, but the same complexity exists in all of us. It works by a process called learning.
Memories are stored through repetition and the more often we do something, the stronger the memory and the more entrenched the learning. This learning can be transmitted through generations via genes.
These genes can be altered by events known as epigenetic influences. It’s not nature versus nurture, it’s nature and nurture in unison. We all have these powerful parts of the brain like the hippocampus where we store memories and the amygdala where emotions are regulated. The two are so strongly connected, it’s almost one.
These are also deep-seated structures in the brain, which tells us that they’re primitive from an evolutionary perspective – core structures that even less evolved creatures possess. This also means that they don’t always follow logic and common sense because the more advanced highly evolved superficially placed frontal cortex, which is possessed only by humans, dictates that.
Anger, fear and sexual arousal are core emotions situated in the primitive parts of our brains. Language, maths, reason, appreciation of music are the functions of the superficial layers.
How does this make us such an angry nation? Why is there so much aggression on our roads? Why does it feel like we are a nation bristling, kindling, waiting for a spark to erupt?
Why are we so drawn to expressions of anger that we love to post videos of it far and wide, and watch it with a morbid fascination?
Why are our politics and politicians so angry that in order to succeed they have to adopt a strategy of disruption and anarchy?
We are depressed as community. Not philosophically or psychologically but physiologically. One depressed human has the capacity to “infect” dozens, if not more, depending on their range of influence.
One of the core symptoms of depression is a change in temperament. Male depression especially is characterised by anger. Men externalise where women internalise.
A common companion of male depression is alcohol. It’s used as a form of self-medication. It disinhibits brain-control mechanisms and allows anger through. Another companion of depression is anxiety or fear, which shortens the time gap between thought and action or speech. We aren’t able to reflect enough.
Depression is characterised by a triad of negativity – negative sense of self, negative sense of future and negative sense of environment. Negativity and fear – our communal ethos.
What can we do?
Now more than ever mental health is critical.
Stigma prevents acknowledgement, let alone help-seeking behaviour. It takes strength to recognise when you’re not okay and weakness to live in denial. Obviously not everyone needs antidepressants, but if we can recognise the core negativity in a system, we can save the other members of the system from becoming infected by the negativity. We need to take the understanding of brain function and apply it to these systems. The field of neuro-cognitive and neuro-behavioral enhancement in non-clinically ill people needs to be applied in boardrooms, factories, the taxi industry and every systemic setting where there is an audience.
Salduker is a psychiatrist and pain physician based at Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital and the director of Psych Management Group
We have a mix of cultures and peoples, so our solutions need to be tailor-made. We can’t just ape the American or European models, we need to create our own. We need to incorporate the transcultural understanding of health and well-being into our teaching. The age of information has passed and we are in the age of wisdom. We know how the brain functions; we need to apply that knowledge to improve the society we live in, in every sphere – social, economic and political.
* Salduker is a psychiatrist and pain physician based at Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital and the director of Psych Management Group