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Brexit on the Couch

The UK is currently in the grip of a colossal identity crisis – something therapists know rather a lot about. With the clock ticking ever louder on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, Professor Sarah Niblock, CEO of UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), considers the nature of ‘Brexit anxiety’, and the vital importance of understanding ourselves before we can move forward.


If there’s one way to stop a conversation, it’s mentioning the ‘B’ word. As the deadline for British withdrawal from the European Union – or Brexit – bears down, no-one wants to be the person who introduces it into conversation.

Brexit has now become a very difficult subject for us to discuss within families, at work or among friends.

So it is no surprise that, despite the silence around the watercooler, many therapists I speak with confirm it is a hot topic in the consulting room. The therapeutic relationship is the one safe, non-judgemental place for people to share their innermost feelings about this subject, which arouses fears and uncertainties whichever way we voted.

I’ve been interviewed by umpteen journalists in recent months asking whether Brexit Anxiety is a thing. The media have certainly featured plenty of people claiming pre-existing feelings of acute stress had worsened, while academic researchers claim to have identified prescribing trends in anti-depressants in the wake of the vote. One UK newspaper reported that EU nationals have described feeling suicidal at the prospect of a no-deal split. The acute and lasting uncertainty would seem to be impacting greatest on those who are already vulnerable.

“But it’s actually not Brexit itself”, said one psychotherapist to me when describing the emotions and dynamics played out in consultations. “The fractures in society were already there, it’s just that Brexit has exposed them to everyone, shone a bright light on them. If it wasn’t Brexit it could easily be something else. Like Trump.”

Registrants I have spoken to say it’s rarely Brexit itself that brings people into therapy, but it’s been a significant conversation once they’re there. In therapy, clients can explore opinions that they simply could not articulate to loved ones or associates without fear of conflict or rejection, betrayal, shame even, given the strength of feeling Brexit conjures on both sides.

The most emotive aspects of the current impasse concern our sense of self and our security. Much has been written already about grandchildren feeling let down by their elders, spouses voting opposing ways, all leading to warring conversations around the dinner table.

The difficulty with referendums is that they require us to vote in very stark yes or no terms. But the simple fact is that with the Brexit vote, as in life, our views tend to sit on a spectrum of shades of grey not sharp contrasts.

The binary nature of the vote has created ruptures in any stable sense of identity or connectedness. Many people don’t know whether they will be physically separated from their families. More question what being British means to them anymore. Socially and emotionally, we are driven to connect with others, to want to feel part of a wider whole.

In politics, we’re very accustomed to splits between the Left and the Right, because both sides before Brexit tended to agree broadly on what it means to be British. That rug has been pulled from under us very dramatically, with political parties themselves mired in internal crisis. If we are no longer secure in our own sense of identity, how might that impact on the way we relate to others, collectively and individually?

With Brexit just days away, it’s been noteworthy how pro-leavers have latterly utilised the language of identity, promoting notional, traditional character traits of resilience and inventiveness as some kind of reassurance that our identity will be even more secure from March 29. In the same way, people in favour of remaining in the EU speak of a collaborative Britishness, united by the acceptance of difference and diversity.

What’s clear is how much parliamentarians on both sides of the divide don’t have the emotional vocabulary to understand and articulate the public mood and offer hope or reassurance. 

What is certain in these times is that therapy is a place where we begin untangling this web together, to create a life that is honest and true to who we are, whether it pleases everyone else or not. I believe strongly in the critical importance of psychotherapy at moments like these. Because the more we understand who we are, how we got to be this way and why we do the things we do, the more we can determine a positive way forward.


Sarah Niblock

A journalist, broadcaster and academic, Sarah became CEO of UK Council for Psychotherapy in September 2017, and is tasked with shaping the organisation to play a leading role in improving access to high quality talking therapies. She is cut from very different cloth to most professors and CEOs we know. Previous to joining UKCP, she was professor and associate dean at University of Westminster’s School of Media, Arts and Design and she has published research on media, trauma and ethics as well as popular music and identity. An academic fellow of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, she commentates on media ethics, specifically trauma and journalism, for a range of outlets. Sarah is co-author (with Stan Hawkins) of Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon (Ashgate) and numerous other books, chapters and articles. She has presented to the paying public on pop culture at Latitude, the Southbank and the ICA.

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