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The day after the general election Boris Johnson suggested that he wanted to cure the divisions caused by Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Indeed, he urged “everyone to find closure and let the healing begin”.
The use of the words “closure” and “healing” is significant.
If that’s the case, then perhaps we should ask whether psychotherapy can tell us anything about why political events affect our emotions.
Or to put it another way: why is that we get so het up about political decisions when, by and large, they don’t make much difference to our lives and, even if they did affect us, we can’t do much about them?
This suggests that our emotions are caused by our thoughts. Dr David Burns, one of the founders of cognitive therapy, says: “Your moods are 100% caused by your thoughts.
“For example, when you’re depressed you’ll be telling yourself things like ‘I’m no good. I’m a loser. Things will never change. I shouldn’t have screwed up’.
“Or when you’re angry with someone you’re telling yourself, ‘He’s a jerk. He just cares about himself. He has no right to say that he shouldn’t be that way’.”
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Media captionWhat makes you angry?
Distorted political thinking
These thoughts are often wrong according to Dr Burns.
“It’s not only that your thoughts create all of your moods. But the thoughts that lead to depression and anxiety and anger are nearly always wrong thoughts. Depression and anxiety are the world’s oldest cons.”
Cognitive therapists call these incorrect thoughts cognitive distortions. There are many different types of distortions, and most are very recognisable. One of the most common is called “all or nothing thinking”. This is where we look at things in black and white terms, rather than in shades of grey.
This distortion is particularly recognisable for anyone who studies politics and voters. We talk about our side as great, and the other side as hateful.
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Rob Johns, professor of politics at the University of Essex, points out that this “tribal view where people tend to see everything on their side as brilliant, and everything on the other side as awful, was perfectly illustrated in the Brexit referendum”.
Why do we get emotional about politics?
It’s these kinds of thoughts that activate perceived threats to our side,