Brexit, it’s stressing me out


hosangDr. Georgina Hosang is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research concerns the role of life adversity  and medical burdens for those with mental illness and the gene-environment interplay in mood disorders (Major Depression & Bipolar Disorder). Here, in the second of our Brexit-focussed posts, she considers the psychological stress that may come with Brexit. 

Strong reactions (‘tears and cheers’) to Brexit and the EU referendum have been observed among the British public. Some people may be surprised at these strong reactions and here we will explore the referendum using a psychosocial stress framework to understand why people are so affected by this political event. Other theories and frameworks could and have also been applied to Brexit.

Stress, more specifically psychosocial stress, is a common human experience (I’m sure you can recall a time when you felt stressed….) and can be defined as a process in which environmental demands exceed the individual’s adaptable capacity resulting in psychological and biological changes (Cohen, Kessler & Underwood-Gordon, 1995). Psychosocial stress covers frequent minor stressful incidents (eg. getting a parking ticket) and serious life changing and stressful events (eg. bereavement) (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer & Lazarus, 1980). The origins of psychosocial stress may stem from events in our personal lives but may also come from those occurring nationally or globally (eg. political events or natural disasters) (Dohrenwend, 2006).


There are a number of reasons why people may have experienced the process and result of the EU referendum as stressful, regardless of which way they voted. The process often involved debate on the topic amongst colleagues, friends and family. On a larger scale a series of public debates also took place with several being televised and viewed by many. For some people such debates resulted in tension and even conflict (Guardian, 2016), which are known to be a source of stress (Dohrenwend, 2006). Moreover, the tone of the referendum campaigns was criticized for being negative, intolerant and toxic (Sky News, 2016) likely to further fuel conflict.


People’s reasons for voting to Leave or to Remain in the EU varied (Lord Ashcroft Polls, 2016), with immigration, the economy and values (eg. sovereignty or global role and peace) frequently cited (BBC, 2016; Pro Europa, 2016). Ultimately the Leave result is likely to evoke a sense of loss not just of the membership of the EU, but also the idea of European unity and peace, especially among Remain voters (BBC, 2016). Such a sense of loss is known to generate stress and is considered in the main stressful life events classification systems (Hosang et al., 2012).


The outcome of the referendum will have ramifications for us all (good and bad), although these are not entirely clear and haven’t happened yet.  Within the context of stress these future ramifications could involve the threat of future loss. For instance anticipated loss of opportunities has been reported as a concern amongst some Britains (Guardian, 2016). Moreover, the resignation of several political figures including the Prime Minister, has left the country in a state of flux and uncertainty which may further compound the stress the referendum has generated across the country. Both the threat of future loss and intolerance for uncertainty have been empirically linked to anxiety (Kendler et al., 2003; Carleton et al., 2012).


Against this background it is clear that the EU referendum may have been experienced as a stressful event for a variety of reasons. Several of these reasons involve politicians (eg. resignation of politicians) and political campaigns, but also involve conflict with friends and family. People respond to stressful events differently (Belsky & Pluess, 2009; Hosang et al., 2014), including depression (Hosang et al., 2012) and anger (Aseltine, Gore & Gordon, 2000), while others seem to cope well. Reports through the media and social media reflect how apparent these responses are amongst Britains.  In an extreme case we saw the murder of MP Jo Cox, which is thought to be politically motivated (Guardian, 2016). This was a very sad and sobering event, but fortunately, such extreme acts of violence are not common reactions. But it does remind us, especially politicians, that we have a duty to act in a balanced and responsible fashion to best manage the stress that such political events can generate for a nation.

Dr. Hosang mitigates against some stressors through Twitter, @DrHosang