The uncertainty of the continuing Brexit drama is taking an toll on British health. Since the referendum vote in 2016, there has been a 13.7 percent increase in antidepressant use versus other medicines. Political chaos is having an effect.
There has even been a study that suggests people subjected to long periods of intense uncertainty experience an immune response comparable to that when contracting a viral or bacterial infection. The British public is certainly tired of the Brexit saga, but it may be having an effect on their bodies as well.
Humans are not machines. Distrubing or upsetting news affects us not only mentally, but also physically. It increases our breathing and heart rates, and instigates a surge in our adrenaline and cortisol levels. There is also an immuno-systemic response that acts to reset our metabolism, with both positive and negative consequences.
During times of intense stress, the body draws on its energy banks to boost its immunity levels. But extended periods of stress can cause the systemic release cytokines — an inflammation agent – which can lead to “sickness behaviour”. Here, people suffer from anxiety and other mental health disorders, as well as social withdrawal and wilful isolation. They also stop exploring new situations and taking risks, regardless of the potential benefits of doing so.
A new study showcases these effects in a real scenario, studying the health of hedge fund traders in London during the European sovereign-debt crisis and negotiations over the notorious Greek bailout. Several times a day, over two weeks, scientists took saliva samples from traders at Deutsche Bank and monitored their levels of cortisol and cytokines. The results demonstrated that traders’ immune systems varied just as much as the markets they worked on.
Hormonal and biochemical changes linked to stress may induce investors to take unorthodox decisions – this can even result in adverse effects in the markets themselves. Investors may take too many risks in the good times, and avoid risks to an excessive degree in the bad times. This can even push a bear market into a crash. Financial markets tend to perform poorly at the start of Q4, as sunshine levels decrease. Levels of cytokines tend to increase naturally during this time of year, so it is conceivable that a link exists.
So what does this mean for the UK and Brexit? It would be normal to expect that many people have experienced a similar stress response to those of these traders. In the weeks following the Brexit referendum, the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index reached an unprecedented high. In the years since, Brits have seen prolonged and charged debate over the future of their country. Insecurity regarding their jobs, friends, families and communities is rife. The physiological and psychological impact on the UK should not be underestimated.