Friday 24 April 2015

Let's ditch the "stiff upper lip" and recognise mental health difficulties

- Annie Zimmerman

I love being British. I love our unanimous love for tea and biscuits. I love the mutual understanding with passers-by that we will ignore each other. I love that the weather is something we all find interesting. I love that we feel the need to apologise for everything that has ever happened. I love our sarcasm, that we can laugh at ourselves and our total inability to say what we mean. I don’t love our ‘stiff upper lip’.

In Britain, having a stiff upper lip can be seen as a desirable attribute; the ability to ‘stay strong’ and hide your emotions in the face of adversity. But in reality it can be a dangerous trait, suggesting that expression emotion is a sign of weakness and encouraging us to mask how we feel. A great article in VICE magazine entitled ‘A stiff upper lip is killing British men’ highlights the risk on physical health, but I want to mention how it can impact mental health.

We have to recognise that we are human – anger and sadness are an important part of life, and experiencing and accepting these emotions is critical to our mental health. In fact, it is likely that negative emotions developed as a survival mechanism to help focus our attention on certain issue. Research suggests that suppressing emotions can have negative effects on psychological health. When we don’t deal with our feelings, emotions come out in different ways, such as alcohol or drug addictions, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and eating disorders. For example, one study found that suppressing negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing and accepting them.

Another major issue with the stoic, British stiff upper lip is that it encourages stigma against mental health difficulties. We are encouraged to think that having emotions is a weakness or makes us crazy. The rate of mental health difficulties is steadily on the rise. Unfortunately, many people don’t ask for help because they are afraid to be considered weak or laughed at. People have become so scared of talking about emotions that they find it difficult to even acknowledge psychological problems that friends and family may be having.

Actually, our emotions are completely warranted and everyone has ups and downs. If you find someone who doesn’t, you can safely assume they are a robot. If someone broke their arm, we would ask them how they were feeling. It should be the same with mental health difficulties. If someone is suffering we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. Fighting the stigma against mental health is a complex battle that cannot be won without shifting out cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Encourage open discussion about emotions with your friends, regardless of their sex. Accepting and talking about our feelings can not only help our own mental health, but can help others to seek help and feel more comfortable with their problems. Although it may not seem like a big deal at the time, simply talking can have far reaching effects in helping to break down the stigma associated with mental health.

Annie Zimmerman runs her own blog exploring the relationship between food and psychology, at

1 comment:

  1. I'm a 52 year old English lady. For most of my life I've received these messages whenever I've been upset or shown my emotions/if I've cried:

    Don't you cry/crying is weak/childish.

    Pull yourself together/don't get upset/don't upset yourself/other similar sayings.

    Fear nothing/worry about nothing/don't be scared about anything.

    After my mum died (a bereavement) I was told not to be sad as my mum would want me to be happy.

    If this is Britain's stiff upper lip philosophy on how I'm expected to behave - with total emotional restraint - then I really hate the British stiff upper lip and I cannot keep this stiff upper lip.

    You see I'm a person who sometimes cries and feels sad, afraid and unhappy and I feel I am being told to stop all my feelings and emotions with this stiff upper lip thing and then I'm judged as being weak/immature/wrong because I can't do this.

    Sometimes, when I'm told to be brave or strong, I'm concerned that this means I'm not supposed to cry, feel or show any emotion at all.

    I definitely feel this stiff upper lip thing is harmful and discriminatory to our mental health. People should be able to cry and express their feelings and emotions appropriately and not be told to keep them under lock and key as the stiff upper lip way dictates.  I am a woman and I'm not a macho man being trained as a soldier to fight in armed combat so I feel the stiff upper lip teaching is inappropriate for a woman like me.