Science Explains British Stoicism in Wake of London Terror Attack

And why nobody is 'reeling.'

Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

Following a terrorist attack on the London Bridge Saturday evening, a New York Times headline attracted criticism for characterizing the UK as “still reeling” from the Manchester bombing at the time of the attack. Not so, according to the people that actually live there. Keep calm and carry on was very much the philosophy on social media Sunday, as Brits condemned the Time’s sensationalist rhetoric.

Following the outcry, the hashtag #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling started trending on Twitter in the UK — using humor to show that despite a tragedy having taken place, the country is going to be fine. The hashtag also provided an opportunity to show some funny patriotism and a take a respite from media fear-mongering.

The UK has lived through its fair share of attacks on home soil — including of course the massive air raids that bombarded Britain during WWII — and studies actually suggest that the British “stiff upper lip” mentality still prevails to this day.

A study commissioned by Kleenex in 2007 following a report about the changing attitudes of Britons towards male tears found that although attitudes might be changing, the stiff upper lip is alive and well. Partnering with the Social Issues Research Centre the study surveyed 2,500 British adults and found that 72 percent believed that bottling up emotions is bad for your health. However, less than 20 percent of those surveyed admitted they to having actually “let it out” in the past 24 hours. What’s more, research from a series of focus groups and interviews suggested that there is a tendency among British adults to think of visible emotions like tears, anger and rage in a negative way.

Another study by the University of Portsmouth in 2014 found that despite understanding that suppressing one’s emotions is not a good strategy for mental health, it is still the British go-to behaviour in stressful situations.

Researchers studied a group of 12 men and women, all members of the British armed forces, as they undertook an expedition to the Antarctic that included a series of life-threatening explorations without medical support at sub-zero temperatures. Researchers found that despite better intentions, the group was unable to deal with conflict head-on, instead suppressing feelings that lead to several “blow out” situations. “This emotional suppression impaired the members of the group mentally and their performance suffered,” said researcher Dr. Chris Wagstaff.

Whether or not Brits are good at dealing with their emotions doesn’t seem to be stopping them from expressing themselves on social media. And stiff upper lips aside, Brits are also notoriously funny, and using humor to counter an inaccurate media narrative can’t be a bad thing.

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