Breaking away from the ‘stiff upper lip’: the importance of emotional processing during Covid-19

It is estimated that one in every four of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point each year[1], and as the country continues to grapple with the long-term challenges brought by Covid-19, there is no doubt that our collective mental wellbeing is facing fresh challenges.

Despite high prevalence levels, there is still stigma surrounding mental health in this country: research conducted by campaign group Time for Change revealed that up to 90% of those with mental health problems experience some form of stigma, whether from friends and family, at work, in education or during treatment[2].

This stigma is deep-rooted, having somehow become engrained within our national identity. The British have long been characterised as placing importance on keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’, especially in times of crisis. It is something that we often take pride in, without ever really questioning. This seems to be embedded within the male psyche in particular – studies have found that men are on average far less likely to seek professional help when struggling with a mental health issue, with suicide rates alarmingly high (in fact, suicide is the biggest killer for men under the age of 45 in the UK[3]).

Nevertheless, there have been gains in recent years in tackling the stigma of mental health in this country. We are seeing upfront and honest conversations in the media that would been unimaginable before. For many, this has felt like a genuine turning point.

And now in the midst of ‘lockdown’, many of us are finding that we are having to take active, deliberate steps to protect our mental health in a way that we may have not done in the past. Mental health, not just physical health, is firmly on the public’s agenda.

Stressful life events, though not always on the scale of the current crisis, can all take their toll psychologically. And yet, not everyone who experiences an emotionally-salient negative event such as this, will go on to develop problems. Clinical Psychologist and emotional processing expert Professor Roger Baker explains that stressful life events “need to be emotionally absorbed, adapted to and integrated into our experience.” Over many years of research into this process, Professor Baker and his team discovered that there are both healthy and unhealthy styles of emotional processing.

Professor Baker explains: “A resilient emotional processing style means that a person can more effectively deal with stressors when they occur so there are less psychological and physical repercussions. Problematic styles of processing may mean that the stressful event is not properly absorbed or integrated, resulting in physical and psychological symptoms.”

The key thing to recognise is that our emotions are not enemy forces to be suppressed or whipped into shape, as the longstanding ‘stiff upper lip’ approach would have us believe. Rather, they are entirely natural responses – like a second immune system protecting us and helping us to understand and interpret the world around us.

 

About the Emotional Processing Scale (EPS): Developed by Professor Roger Baker and his research team, the EPS is a groundbreaking psychometric tool that examines healthy and unhealthy styles of emotional processing and potential deficits. The EPS has already received high praise from the British Psychological Society for its pioneering approach to mental health. Discover the EPS here.

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