One in three Brits believe Brexit has had a negative impact on their mental health, a survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) found earlier this year – and counsellors are witnessing this, too.
“Generally, Brexit is creating a lot of anxiety,” says Lesley Ludlow, chair of the BACP’s private practice division and a counsellor of more than 18 years. “It’s on the news all the time and I think people are feeling really unsettled.
“People can’t plan, they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s seeping into all corners of life, really.”
And now, with parliament ‘unlawfully’ prorogued and leaked documents revealing a no-deal Brexit could spark riots, shortages of food and medicines and widespread chaos at UK ports – it throws another level of uncertainty into the mix.
Hearing all this is likely to impact many people’s emotions, regardless of how they voted. And while this political uncertainty may not be directly affecting people’s lives yet – although, those subjected to Home Office scrutiny or impacted by medication shortages may beg to differ – Louise Tyler, counsellor and BACP accredited member based in Cheshire, says it’s adding “yet another layer” for those who are already anxious or stressed.
“Uncertainty is one of the most difficult emotional states to manage,” she says. “Really, most anxiety is a result of uncertainty.”
So how can you manage your emotions in the weeks to come?
If you feel anxious...
Anxiety control strategies can help people who are feeling worried about the political crisis, says Tyler. If you’re feeling anxious, deep breathing exercises, getting out in nature, or practicing mindfulness and meditation may help.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies – where you take a step back and try to find other ways of looking at an issue – can also be beneficial. Are you thinking about the worst-case scenario with Brexit? Take a second to think about how you feel, says Tyler, rate it on a scale of one to 10, and then ask yourself: what’s another way of looking at this? It’s not necessarily about finding a positive way of looking at the situation, she says, it’s more about being realistic.
“Once you’ve looked at the thought in a more realistic way, you then rate in your body how you’re feeling and whether your levels of anxiety have come down,” adds Tyler.
Another strategy could be to answer Tyler’s five questions she often asks clients about their anxious thoughts. These are: is this thought absolutely true? What am I predicting? How realistic is this? What’s a more realistic or balanced thought? Am I confusing thought with fact?
“If you work through a set of questions like that, you can often bring down your anxiety,” she explains. “Because what happens is, when you go into a very anxious state, you go into a fight or flight response, where the more functional side of your brain naturally closes down and you’re not able to think straight.”
These coping strategies can help return this part of your brain to its original state so you can begin to rationalise the situation, she suggests.
If you feel powerless...
With uncertainty often comes a sense of powerlessness – especially when the future of the country lies in the hands of a select few.
“This sense of powerlessness often takes people back to childhood,” says Tyler. “People are used to feeling like they have a semblance of control, but at the moment they don’t necessarily feel that.”
The specific technique for this situation, Tyler advises, should be to turn off media. She urges people to stick to one trusted news source and try to get away from rolling news coverage on TV, if possible.
Coming off Twitter and turning off news notifications might also help you escape. Rather than hanging on every twist and turn in the run up to 31 October, mark out one point in the day – perhaps early evening – where you catch up on the news for a set amount of time, and then switch off.
“I’ve had quite a few clients turning on an old comedy series or something instead of watching the news,” Tyler says.
If you feel angry...
Don’t get caught up in Twitter arguments – or rows on any other social media platforms for that matter, advises counsellor Lesley Ludlow.
Ludlow is experienced in helping people with trauma, anxiety, depression and work stress, and says it’s really important to be able to put your device down and walk away – even if you come across viewpoints you don’t agree with.
“If you find yourself wanting to respond, walk away and give yourself some breathing space before you respond,” she says. “You do need to think carefully, particularly with Twitter, as it can get nasty and I think a lot of people get hurt.”
The next step, if you’re still feeling angry, is to take action. This could be signing petitions, attending protests or even viewing the political situation in terms of the “bigger picture” – perhaps by volunteering for charities that need help like food banks and homeless services.
“I think this helps because it gives a sense of taking back some control of the situation,” says Tyler, ”[it’s] slightly diluting that feeling of powerlessness.”
If you feel sad...
Exercise boosts endorphins levels and can elevate your mood, help you sleep better and limit the effects of stress on the brain. But if you’re not able to exercise, just get outside, says Ludlow.
“Take yourself away, even if you’re just going outside to look at something,” she says. “Take your mind somewhere else and focus on the here and now.”
In fact, mindfulness is scientifically proven to boost low mood, so if you’d prefer to stay indoors, Ludlow says even going to make a cup of tea and practicing mindfulness while you do – focusing on what you’re doing in that moment and not thinking about other things – can help.
“Some people get really panicky,” she adds. “It’s really important to try and control that panic. It’s about focusing – even if it’s just making a drink – on what you’re doing in the moment, just to get your heart rate down.”
Eating healthily and getting a good night’s sleep play an important part in keeping your mental health in check and boosting mood, too.
If you feel overwhelmed...
It’s a very normal response to feel overwhelmed right now, says clinical psychologist Dr Simon Stuart, and this could mean experiencing all of the emotions above.
“Wherever we stand politically, emotions such as anxiety, sadness and particularly anger will show up a lot,” he says. “And that’s completely normal. It absolutely makes sense that we’re going to feel these: our political situation is in chaos, and that’s incredibly anxiety-provoking.”
While we might not be able to control our emotions, we can control how we respond to them, he says. “If I was going to give just one piece of advice, it’d be this: be kind.”
Dr Stuart says we should be kind to ourselves and try, wherever possible, to be kind to others. “That’s incredibly difficult to do,” he adds. “But how many arguments are definitively won by furious argument – or, worse, by violence?”
We can vote and we can engage with people who want to bring about positive change, he says, but we still need to make time to do kind things for ourselves. “For me, that can be as simple as cuddling my cat, or listening to a piece of music I love. In a messed-up world, these things matter.”
But if things really do get too much – and you’re feeling overwhelmed to the point where you’re reaching crisis point – there’s no shame in seeking help. You can self-refer for talking therapy on the NHS, or for those who can afford to do so, private therapy is also an option.
If the waiting times are too long, it’s worth speaking to your HR department at work to see if there is any support in place for employees. And if you need to speak to someone quickly, visit your local A&E where a crisis team can support you, or get in touch with one of the charities below.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.