We humans

7 ways to practice emotional first aid

Feb 26, 2015

Psychologist Guy Winch lays out seven useful ways to reboot your emotional health … starting right now.

You put a bandage on a cut or take antibiotics to treat an infection, right? No questions asked. In fact, questions would be asked if you didn’t apply first aid when necessary. So why isn’t the same true of our mental health? We are expected to just “get over” psychological wounds — when as anyone who’s ever ruminated over rejection or agonized over a failure knows only too well, emotional injuries can be just as crippling as physical ones. We need to learn how to practice emotional first aid. Here are 7 ways to do so:

  1. Pay attention to emotional pain — recognize it when it happens and work to treat it before it feels all-encompassing.
    The body evolved the sensation of physical pain to alert us that something is wrong and we need to address it. The same is true for emotional pain. If a rejection, failure or bad mood is not getting better, it means you’ve sustained a psychological wound and you need to treat it. For example, loneliness can be devastatingly damaging to your psychological and physical health, so when you or your friend or loved one is feeling socially or emotionally isolated, you need to take action.
  2. Redirect your gut reaction when you fail.
    The nature of psychological wounds makes it easy for one to lead to another. Failure can often drive you to focus on what you can’t do instead of focusing on what you can. That can then make you less likely to perform at your best, which will make you even more focused on your shortcomings, and on the cycle goes. To stop this sort of emotional spiral, learn to ignore the post-failure “gut” reaction of feeling helpless and demoralized, and make a list of factors that you can control were you to try again. For instance, think about preparation and planning, and how you might improve each of them. This kind of exercise will reduce feelings of helplessness and improve your chances of future success.
  3. Monitor and protect your self-esteem. When you feel like putting yourself down, take a moment to be compassionate to yourself.
    Self-esteem is like an emotional immune system that buffers you from emotional pain and strengthens your emotional resilience. As such, it is very important to monitor it and avoid putting yourself down, particularly when you are already hurting. One way to “heal” damaged self-esteem is to practice self-compassion. When you’re feeling critical of yourself, do the following exercise: imagine a dear friend is feeling bad about him or herself for similar reasons and write an email expressing compassion and support. Then read the email. Those are the messages you should be giving yourself.
  4. When negative thoughts are taking over, disrupt them with positive distraction.
    When you replay distressing events in your mind without seeking new insight or trying to solve a problem, you’re just brooding, and that, especially when it becomes habitual, can lead to deeper psychological pain. The best way to disrupt unhealthy rumination is to distract yourself by engaging in a task that requires concentration (for example, do a Sudoku, complete a crossword, try to recall the names of the kids in your fifth grade class). Studies show that even two minutes of distraction will reduce the urge to focus on the negative unhealthily.
  5. Find meaning in loss.
    Loss is a part of life, but it can scar us and keep us from moving forward if we don’t treat the emotional wounds it creates. If sufficient time has passed and you’re still struggling to move forward after a loss, you need to introduce a new way of thinking about it. Specifically, the most important thing you can do to ease your pain and recover is to find meaning in the loss and derive purpose from it. It might be hard, but think of what you might have gained from the loss (for instance, “I lost my spouse but I’ve become much closer to my kids”). Consider how you might gain or help others gain a new appreciation for life, or imagine the changes you could make that will help you live a life more aligned with your values and purpose.
  6. Don’t let excessive guilt linger.
    Guilt can be useful. In small doses, it alerts you to take action to mend a problem in your relationship with another person. But excessive guilt is toxic, in that it wastes your emotional and intellectual energies, distracts you from other tasks, and prevents you from enjoying life. One of the best ways to resolve lingering guilt is to offer an effective apology. Yes, you might have tried apologizing previously, but apologies are more complex than we tend to realize. The crucial ingredient that every effective apology requires — and most standard apologies lack — is an “empathy statement.” In other words, your apology should focus less on explaining why you did what you did and more on how your actions (or inactions) impacted the other person. It is much easier to forgive someone when you feel they truly understand. By apologizing (even if for a second time), the other person is much more likely to convey authentic forgiveness and help your guilt dissolve.
  7. Learn what treatments for emotional wounds work for you.
    Pay attention to yourself and learn how you, personally, deal with common emotional wounds. For instance, do you shrug them off, get really upset but recover quickly, get upset and recover slowly, squelch your feelings, or …? Use this analysis to help yourself understand which emotional first aid treatments work best for you in various situations (just as you would identify which of the many pain relievers on the shelves works best for you). The same goes for building emotional resilience. Try out various techniques and figure out which are easiest for you to implement and which tend to be most effective for you. But mostly, get into the habit of taking note of your psychological health on a regular basis — and especially after a stressful, difficult, or emotionally painful situation.

Yes, practicing emotional hygiene takes a little time and effort, but it will seriously elevate your entire quality of life. I promise.

See Guy Winch’s TED Talk, Why we all need to practice emotional first aid. Featured image via iStock.