What is Brexit doing to our brains?
Brexit is a word that didn't even exist before the referendum on June 26th, 2016. Now it is a word that is seared into our conscious and unconscious mind, whether we like it or not. There is no escaping media coverage of it, conversations with others about it and general exposure to the whole experience. For those of us who are living in the UK, this is especially the case.
Brexit on the brain
Brexit is a completely new challenge for the brain to deal with, on so many different levels. From the outset, Brexit is a unique experience for the brain to try and process. There has never been another time in history that the UK has left the EU, so the brain has no previous experience or memory to draw upon to help it make sense of Brexit. Therefore, that is why we hear Brexit being compared to all kinds of other things that have happened in the UK because Brexit as a concept is totally new for the brain to understand and work with. Of course, the brain is up for this new challenge and can work with it, but that does not mean that it won't struggle with coming up with a solution that works for you or everyone else.
Brexit has divided public consensus in a very real way, seeing families, friends and communities being pulled apart as a result. The opinion and emotion that is produced by the individual brain around Brexit, has the capacity to draw us to people who share the same opinion as us and avoid and dismiss those that don't. This is social psychology in action. In sociology and social psychology, an ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify. Brexit has created ingroups and outgroups on a collective level of those who voted to leave or remain and also on an individual level with the different social groups we personally exist in, such as family, work colleagues and friendship groups. The brain has to deal with all these additional challenges produced by Brexit.
There is a lot said about Project Fear when it comes to Brexit. Both sides are blaming the other for trying to create an air of fear around what will happen if we stay or leave. This is also a challenge for the brain. Fear as an emotion triggers the 'flight or fight' response system in the brain, which sees the individual running from a situation or staying to fight. Again if we look at the impact of Brexit on the individual, that in-flight response will flee from media coverage, conversations and exposure to information about Brexit. Some in the fight response immerse themselves in the detail of Brexit, have passionate debates about it and may join public protests to voice their opinion. Again the brain is trying to deal with all of this psychological Brexit fallout.
Finally, the brain must deal with the whole uncertainty at this stage of what Brexit will actually look like. As a result, depending on how we are thinking about it, it can generate all kinds of catastrophic thinking and consequences about the outcome. This again is a challenge for the brain and we can end up being stressed, worried, anxious or panicked about what could happen. This psychological fallout can be seen in the behaviour of people stockpiling food, medicines and other provisions out of fear of uncertainty.
How can we cope?
Brexit is a challenge on many levels; this also includes the challenge it gives your brain. If you are trying to cope with the psychological challenges of Brexit, do what you need to do to keep your brain healthy. This can be using a form of relaxation to help calm your brain, some exercise to help it deal with stress, having a media blackout if it is not making you feel good or limiting the conversations you have about it. With all the talk about Brexit that there is at the moment, don't forget about your brain and the impact that Brexit is having on it also! Long after Brexit is done and dusted, your brain will still be there with you to move forward and continue to help you deal with the future, whatever that might look like.
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About Mark Rackley
I'm a chartered psychologist practicing in Putney, South West London.
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