What Is Emotional Hygiene? And Why Is It Just As Important As Physical Hygiene?
“I recently was at a friend's house,” says Guy Winch at the beginning of his TEDTalk, “and their five-year-old was standing on a stool, brushing his teeth, when he slipped and scratched his leg. He cried for a minute, but then he got back up, got back on the stool, and reached out for a box of Band-Aids to put one on his cut. Now, this kid could barely tie his shoelaces, but he knew you have to cover a cut so it doesn't become infected, and you have to care for your teeth by brushing twice a day. We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practise dental hygiene, right? We've known it since we were five years old. But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing.”
Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health? Why don’t we see a health professional when we feel emotional pain, guilt, loss, or loneliness? Why are we expected to just “get on with things” when we’re dealing with an emotional wound, but know to take care of ourselves when the same wound is one of a physical nature?
Those are the questions Guy Winch sets out to answer in his work. He is a psychologist, speaker, and author whose books have been translated into 15 languages, as well as a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives, workplaces and education systems. He believes we need to “practice emotional hygiene with the same diligence with which we practice personal and dental hygiene”, and makes a compelling case for how learning to care for our emotional wellbeing can change our lives for the better.
But what practical steps can we actually take? Here are 7 ways to practice “emotional first aid”:
Pay attention to emotional pain — recognize it when it happens and work to treat it before it feels all-encompassing.
We know how to recognise physical pain. We can train our brains and emotion centres to be more aware of emotional pain and address it with gentle, caring compassion as soon as we identify the feeling in question. This way, we’re preventing it from overwhelming our senses and overtaking our lives.
Redirect your gut reaction when you fail.
Failure is a requisite of life. We know we won’t be able to escape failure at some point in our lives, nor should we aim to, for it can re-direct us in the most surprising ways. We’ve been conditioned to focus on our drawbacks, and obsess over our limitations, instead of choosing to use failures as precious occasions to learn from our mistakes. If your first gut reaction is to feel disheartened and give up, train yourself to focus on the things you can control, and how to improve on them next time.
Monitor and protect your self-esteem. When you feel like putting yourself down, take a moment to be compassionate to yourself.
When you’re feeling down and ready to lose yourself in a critical spiral, compassion can be a survival tool. Imagine a friend is dealing with the same issue you are, and asking for support: talk to yourself the way you would talk to them. Write yourself an email, record a voice note to yourself, practice tenderness in the way you interact with your thoughts when you’re hurting.
When negative thoughts are taking over, disrupt them with positive distraction.
Incessant sulking is a mis-direction of our energy and can lead to deeper psychological pain. When you find yourself playing negative thoughts over and over in your mind, to no avail, try distracting yourself with a task like a Sudoku, a crossword, or a book. The key is to let your attention be absorbed by something other than your own negative loop, as studies show that even two minutes of distraction will reduce the urge to focus on unhealthy thought patterns.
Find meaning in loss.
While loss is inescapable, finding new ways to think and talk about it is important in order to move forward with our lives. To treat the emotional wound of loss, try a mental exercise in which you look for meaning in what you went through and purpose in its lesson. Sometimes, our biggest losses and deepest scars help us gain a new appreciation for life, or realise how much we can do to help others. Reframing our worst moments is not easy, but it is the only way to find value in them.
Don’t let excessive guilt linger.
Guilt is a useful emotion to listen to: it can be a sign of wrongdoing we need to correct, or a relationship we’ve disregarded. But when it takes over our whole life, lingering guilt is dangerous and an obstacle to maintaining healthy relationships. So next time you find yourself in a similar situation, apologise with empathy. Avoid explaining why you acted the way you did, and simply focus on how you impacted the other person. Being on the receiving end of sincere forgiveness can make all the difference.
Learn what treatments for emotional wounds work for you.
Getting to know your emotional self as much as you do your physical body is something we haven’t been taught, but need to start doing if we want to master our wellbeing. What’s your modus operandi when it comes to emotional wounds? Do you get angry easily, or ignore your feelings? Do you sit with them excessively, or treat them with alcohol or other suppressants? Know your go-tos, observe and analyse them, and you’ll better understand what technique works best for you –just like you would any medicine!
The key is learning to think of and care for emotional wounds the way we would any physical pain. Once we make it a habit, and successfully retrain our brains in new and improved ways, we will have powerful tools at our disposal to use as coping mechanisms.
“Emotional first aid” sounds like a complicated, woo-woo concept, but it really is just the same as flossing your mind instead of your teeth. It’s bandaging your heart, instead of the scratch on your knee or the bruise on your arm. Nobody taught us how to practise emotional hygiene when we were kids, so we have to do it for ourselves as adults. It’s all part of growing up, after all.