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Brexiety: a rise of anxiety among British Expats living in the European Union

Updated: Apr 14

By Vera A. Castellanos and Stefani Coric


In Boris Johnson´s first speech as a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he obliged himself to deliver Brexit on October 31st 2019 with or without a deal with the European Union. Fully determined he stated ´´And the ports will ready and the banks will be ready, and the factories will be ready, and business will be ready, and the hospitals will be ready, and our amazing food and farming sectors will be ready and waiting to continue selling evermore, not just here but around the world.´´ He even assured 3 million of EU nationals living in the UK that they will have the right to live and remain. However, there is one group of people that Boris Johnson as well as his predecessor forgot about, over one million British citizens currently live on the mainland of the European Union.


The uncertainty of Brexit has been dominating media outlets for years. This political crisis is taking its toll on the social, economic and psychological wellbeing of British citizens. Britons living on the island fear the effect of Brexit on the economy or food and medicine supplies and those Britons living on the mainland of the European Union fear the legal implications of this break-up and its effect on their life abroad.


This anxiety is expressed in psychotherapeutic offices across Europe. One young man from England undergoing psychoanalytic treatment while living and working in Vienna conveys thoughts and feelings of anxiety about the outcome of Brexit to his therapist. George, who moved to Vienna to live with his Viennese girlfriend 3 years ago, recently learned that after Brexit he might need to apply for a visa in order to continue his life in Austria. Applying for the staying permit in Austria requires one to justify their reasons for wanting to stay in the country and to present government officials with the most personal information and documents such as bank statements, living conditions and family relations. Worries about the fact that the future of his personal and professional life is in someone else's hands keeps George awake at night and he reports having troubles concentrating on his work.


Anxiety, an emotional state characterized by feelings of restlessness and tenseness, troubles functioning in daily life as well as bodily symptoms such as chest pain or increased heart rate, is a common response to a perceived danger. This kind of emotional reaction is a common response of human psyche to the condition of their environment becoming unfavorable and one’s inner world becoming overwhelmed by feelings of fear and hopelessness. Anxiety feelings experienced among British citizens living in the European Union are what Sigmund Freud (1926) referred to as ´´realistic anxiety´´ and are an expected reaction to the political crisis that leaves millions of people and their lives vulnerable to distortion. Their personal and professional relationship could be evaluated, processed and judged upon by the government officials. Their lives can potentially be ripped apart if officials deem their stay in Austria to be unjustified. In other words, there is a ´´realistic danger´´ that threatens one's general wellbeing and their inner world, or what is in psychoanalytic words known as the Ego, is crumbling under the pressure of a new reality.

However, there could be more to this inner tribulation than a simple reaction to the foreseen danger. Especially considering that for most people undergoing the process of obtaining a staying or working permit in any country is a regular part of migration.

How come that for some British expats, the newfound situation seems to be so apocalyptic?!


Freud (1926) distinguishes between realistic and traumatic anxiety, saying that an individual will attempt to self-preserve as they expect a traumatic event. This will lead to feelings of helplessness. In a dangerous situation, the signal of anxiety alerts and one might unconsciously be reminded of a traumatic experience from the past and attempt to protect themselves in a way they couldn't earlier. Or in Freud's words "Anxiety is, therefore, on the one hand, an expectation of trauma, and on the other a repetition of it in a mitigated form".

Another case of a British woman in her 40’s, Emily, expressed her brexities when bringing in a dream that represented change and loss. In the dream, the toilet was flooding with water and feces, and she did not have any control over the situation. The therapists’ office is known for symbolizing the lavatory of psychic digestion. Her therapist introduced the idea that perhaps there was a fear of loss of her residence permit or her place in the therapist's practice. Suddenly feelings of guilt flooded the sessions. Guilt arouse for feeling anxious about it when comparing her situation to her flatmate, who was an immigrant from Nigeria. For Emily, who never saw herself as an immigrant, the humiliating process of obtaining a residence permit would be too degrading, when for generations; British citizens had the privilege of unrestricted traveling. Therefore, new administrative demands felt alien. Emily, for the first time, felt abandoned by her motherland, whose political representatives first expelled their expats from making a decision and later left them without support. This led the therapeutic work to trace back some traumatic childhood experiences in early developmental stages dealing with strictness, aggression, and shame.


Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan writes about the strong link between personal identity and collective identity. Children identify with both realistic and phantasy aspects of individuals in their environment. And as children separate and individuate themselves form their care givers and their sense of ´´we-ness´´ is no longer limited to their imminent environment , the child starts investing and identifying parts of himself into his larger groups: ethnic group, nation, religious or even sport communities. Belonging to Large Group to a certain extent overtakes some roles caretakers had in early childhood.

Many historic leaders of large groups are often called Fathers or Mothers, like the Founding Fathers in the United States, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey or Nelson Mandela in South Africa. For British nationals, their country, that at one point in time ruled the quarter of the world, is now failing to protect them. Theresa May, who resigned, and the Queen, who is powerless, represent mothers of the country who were unable to support them and this loss can be compared to the loss of the mother´s protection.

In Emily´s dream, water and feces flooding in the lavatory represented feelings and anxieties of abandonment and neglect of her needs by her own mother in her early childhood. Brexiety is in a similar way a result of the abandonment by the motherland, but also of a damage of the self-image related to the collective identity.


Britons living in the European Union feel just like neglected children. Whether British Expats living in the European Union welcome or oppose Brexit it will undoubtedly affect them, their lives and sense of personal identity.




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