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Feeling Brexit Anxiety? Step Away From The Screen

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Photography by Bill Brandt
When I heard that our country had voted to leave the EU in the early hours of Friday the 24th, I felt a band tightening around my head. I could feel a pulse running through it and the best way to alleviate the pain was to place my fingertips along the edge of my eye sockets and gently massage my eyeballs as I rotated them in my head.

It may sound dramatic but I’ve been suffering these sorts of headaches for several months, and was told by the doctor they were due to a combination of stress and too much screen time. Having successfully taken steps to get them under control for the past month, the headaches have crashed back into my life since I’ve been glued to the fallout from Brexit.

I’ve heard many similar stories about how the referendum news has taken a physical and mental toll on people – with shaking, crying, jaw-clenching, chest-tightening, exhaustion and insomnia among the many symptoms. One of my friends who suffers from anxiety told me she’s been feeling it rise whenever she watches the news so has been avoiding it. Unsurprising, really, when it’s been a 24/7 rolling nightmare, featuring rising hate crimes, markets sinking and Westminster outdoing EastEnders in the soap opera stakes. And that’s just in the UK – factor in the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Baghdad and Dhaka, and the ongoing refugee crisis, and the world seems like a very dark place right now.

No Radio 4. No BBC News. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Guardian politics live blog. No Owen Jones. No Paul Mason. No leafing through a grubby, discarded Evening Standard on the Tube.


I too decided that I needed some time out from the news last week. No Radio 4. No BBC News. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Guardian politics live blog. No Owen Jones. No Paul Mason. No leafing through a grubby, discarded Evening Standard on the Tube.

As a journalist, news-junkie and Twitter addict, I didn’t find this easy. But on Thursday, I skipped my morning ritual of listening to the Today Programme in bed and got an extra 30 minutes sleep. On the Tube, I listened to Warwick Davis’s Desert Island Discs. I logged out of Facebook, temporarily deleted my Twitter mobile app, and Instagram too for good measure (I knew that pictures of my friends having fun at Glastonbury weren’t going to be any help to me.) In the evening, instead of tuning in to Newsnight I saw Love Island for the first time – watching the couples bitch about each other in the villa made me grimace far less than the unfurling Labour bloodbath.

I may have missed the ins and outs of the story that day – and the ‘Claire Blunderwood’ jibes on Twitter – but I felt no less informed and considerably better for unplugging.

While the news at the moment is like an unenjoyable version of The Thick of It or House of Cards, it will not end after a series of 10 episodes. This crisis is going to continue, week after week and years into the future. Some people may be able to shrug it off, or suggest growing a thicker skin, but can the relentless cycle of bad news add burden to people already struggling in their everyday lives?

Lola* decided to stop watching the news for six months last year when she was suffering from depression. “The majority of mainstream media is negative and being a very sensitive person, it became too overwhelming to look at,” she says.

“I would become acutely aware of the suffering and pain in the world which made it seem even more of a lonely and threatening place than the depression was already convincing me it was,” she says.

The news cycle can affect people in different ways, says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. When it comes to Brexit, Burke says she’s seen a range of emotions from clients including feeling overwhelmed, powerless and despondent.

“It’s like a divorce, similar to what people might experience with the death of a relationship,” she says.

The speed and magnitude of the news means it’s important to stay informed, but it’s also possible to become obsessed with the news events. “There’s an element of masochism in there, where people almost delight in having their worst fears confirmed,” says Burke.

“It’s like a car crash – you don’t want to look at it but you become somehow obsessed by how bad it is,” she says. "There is a point where the dust will settle and at that point you can ask, ‘what is the point of feeding myself with all this news?'"

But she has also seen lots of acceptance around the result, with people looking at ways they can move on or make a difference. “I think something good can come out of negativity and frustration, but it depends on the person,” Burke says.

Since my news-free sojourn (of, granted, 24 hours), I’ve been conscious of only dipping in and out and not getting too consumed by it all. Getting out to the March for Europe at the weekend felt much better than moping behind a computer screen.

Of course, for those directly affected by the rising level of racist or xenophobic abuse, it is not possible to tune out. EU citizens who have been given no assurance that they will be able to stay in the UK also will likely have trouble doing so.

But amid so much uncertainty, we do know this news cycle won’t be slowing down anytime soon. So rather than try to keep pace with the Pestons and Kuenssbergs of the world, give yourself some breathing space. Now the referendum has passed, we have to find hope, solidarity and some reassurance to save our worried minds.
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