4 tips to positively adapt to Brexit

The dramatic outcome of the UK Brexit referendum — and the turmoil that has followed in recent days — has caused shock and concern among many. For the first time in a generation, the UK faces a constitutional crisis and years of soul-searching as we decide who we want to be as a nation. For voters (and non-voters) on both sides, recent developments have created a sense of anxiety, anger and, for some, helplessness.

The path ahead is unknowable and, as the hackneyed expression goes “the only thing that is certain is uncertainty”. Given this adversity, the question arises: how can we adapt positively and proactively to make the best of the situation?

This is where some simple tools from the field of resilience and positive psychology can help. They won’t change the result, but they might just help you manage your experience of what is coming over the next 2 years.

Tip 1: Take action that reflects your values.
Stanford stress-scientist, Kelly McGonigal, writes that stress is what arises when things that we value are at stake. When we are pursuing goals that really matter, some stress is inevitable. So how do draw energy from this stress rather than let is beat us down? One way is to proactively take action that reflects your values. If you value guaranteed freedom of movement for you and your family, investigate applying for another (non-British) European passport. If you value freedom of movement for everyone, plan to vote for it in upcoming elections. If you feel like the level of political debate doesn’t match the gravity and complexity of the decisions we face, join a political party and participate in that debate. If you are concerned that the result puts values of tolerance, compassion and solidarity at risk, make a special effort to express these values in your daily interactions with other people on all sides of the Brexit debate and independent of their origin.

Tip 2: Don’t “mind-read” voters on the other side. Instead, ask (genuinely) curious questions.
Cognitive resilience means being able to examine the causes of our negative emotions and behaviors to determine if they are proportionate. Many of us have experienced negative emotions following the referendum so the question is: what caused these emotions and are they proportionate? For many, it is the belief that voters on the other side hold views on identity and nationhood that are diametrically opposed to their own that creates the greatest unease. An open conversation with voters of a different persuasion will often (if not always) reveal that there are shades of grey in the discussion and that voters on each side share many of the same values. Though this doesn’t mean we all agree on how the UK should deal with the challenges it faces, it does help diffuse the idea that the other side voted with malevolent intentions. This realisation alone can take the edge off some of our negative feelings.

Tip 3: Re-goal to build hope.
For many, the referendum result represents dashed hopes and deep loss. One way to cope with such an experience is to reflect on what new goals might be attainable and to focus efforts on achieving those. This could mean taking steps to ensure financial security for you and your family or even campaigning to influence what happens next. Either way, this “regoaling” approach is a tool that helps us bounce back from negative events with a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

Tip 4: Re-direct attention to the good things in life.
Researchers have shown that proactively savoring the good things in our life, by noting them down (literally or mentally), generates positive emotions that are not only pleasurable but are also good for our ability to think openly and to stay healthy. Repeating this exercise on a regular basis can create a habit that makes us better at “scanning” the world for the positive, counteracting our in-built negativity bias and improving our daily experience (n.b. This tip won’t fix Brexit but it might just fix your day!).

Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at The University of Pennsylvania, has highlighted five key elements for a flourishing life: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (Flourish, 2011). Resilience skills can provide us with a way to manage these elements of our daily experience — even in the face of adversity.

While there is no doubting the short-term emotional impact of the Brexit for many, the 4 tips above provide a few ways to stay hopeful, engaged and purposeful as we work through what’s coming next.