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European Semester of Psychology 2018

Expat anxiety

14 February 2018 | by Guest

Christine Haworth-Staines is a Chartered Psychologist, Registered Psychologue, and Associate Fellow of the BPS who has been living and working in France for over ten years, and here provides her perspective on how things have changed for the expat community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

With the UK Office of National Statistics reporting last year an overall significant increase in happiness and life satisfaction of residents of England since the Brexit vote, along with a small but not significant increase in anxiety, this caused me to reflect on the impact of Brexit on British expatriates in Europe.

Speaking as a British citizen living and working in France since 2005, and as a psychologist with mostly Anglophone clients, the experience of the Brexit referendum from an expatriate’s point of view has been, for most people, one of anxiety and anger, coupled with a growing feeling of helplessness, none of which is exactly conducive to long-term mental wellbeing.

When we consider some of the important factors in mental health, we know that a positive relationship with others and a sense of belonging is paramount. This extends not just to our immediate family but to the society in which we live.

Being part of the European Union gave expatriates in Europe a sense of belonging to their adopted community. Despite being outside our country of origin we felt we belonged to this wider economic and social group.

We also know that having a sense of purpose, either through work or other projects, is just as important to maintaining a sense of well-being. But with all the potential changes to the rights of UK citizens in Europe it is difficult to pursue projects with confidence.

A survey I conducted recently of 60 British citizens living in and around the Gers, a department in SW France, indicated that post-Brexit their anxiety has increased by 22%, while the level of happiness reported had fallen by almost 14%, and feelings of security about the future had likewise fallen by 21%.

Living with uncertainty is particularly difficult for those people who are predisposed to anxiety disorders. Individuals who hold strong beliefs that worrying is positive, often to maintain a sense of control, are having difficulty with this ongoing process of Brexit.  

But the impact has been wider than this. I have seen clients with issues of trust in relation to others feeling their negative beliefs are now reinforced. One such client stated that:

“I always thought the British Government would protect its citizens and that people in power in the UK would make sensible decisions… that has been shattered, I have lost faith in others”.

The subsequent feelings of vulnerability led to this particular client developing a severe panic disorder that was quite disabling.  

It appears that a great deal of the distress being generated by Brexit is due to the general feeling of uncertainty - what if I cannot work here any longer? what if I cannot access healthcare? what if the French view me negatively? – and the unknown consequences of this decision, to the point where I have encountered people who are effectively incapacitated with worry about “what if…?”

And although we cannot reverse the result of the Brexit referendum (and some would not want to), one thing we can do is focus more on the consequences unfolding before us, not just the fiscal but also the personal, the physical and the mental, and try to ameliorate them where we can.

The psychologist’s role, therefore, is to help clients to see that worrying about things out of their control is futile, and to understand that they can only seek solutions to problems if and when they arise.

For myself I am still hoping Theresa May and her team will be able to negotiate a deal which will avoid the most negative of these “what if…?” scenarios and, in the meantime, I’m doing my best not to worry.

Well, not much.


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