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Improve Your Mental Health by Practicing Emotional First Aid

The importance of treating common psychological injuries

We sustain common psychological injuries such as rejection or failure as regularly as we do physical ones such as cuts or scrapes. But while we’re extremely aware of the need to dress physical wounds as soon as they occur, when it comes to our psychological injuries, we’re strangely apathetic. If we cut ourselves, we don’t just walk around bleeding. We recognize that ignoring the cut would invite infection and prolong the pain we feel. We clean the wound, we apply antibacterial ointment, and we slap on a bandage because we know it will accelerate the healing process, reduce our immediate discomfort, and prevent a small injury from potentially turning into a bigger one.

But when it comes to common psychological injuries, we exhibit none of the same awareness. We feel no need to clean the wound, no urgency to dress it, no fear of a small injury turning into a bigger one. And yet psychological injuries present exactly the same risks to our emotional well-being as physical ones do to our physical health. They too can become ‘infected’ if we ignore them. They too will take longer to heal if we don’t dress them. They too will continue to hurt if we don’t apply the emotional equivalents of ointments and band aids.

Common Psychological Injuries We Sustain in Daily Life

We don’t rush to the doctor every time we have a cough, a scrape, or a bad stomach. We usually treat such things in our homes. Of course, if we don’t get better, we might end up going to the doctor at some point, but the vast majority of time, we are perfectly able to nurse ourselves back to health without professional medical intervention. The same is true when it comes to small psychological injuries. If we apply emotional first aid when we sustain a psychological injury, we should be able to nurse ourselves back to emotional health without the assistance of a mental health professional.

These are the common psychological injuries that might require emotional first aid:

1. Rejection: We get rejected all the time, by dating partners, employers, friends, and spouses. Rejections are the emotional cuts and scrapes of daily life.

2. Failure: We frequently fail to attain our goals, to pass tests in school, or to complete tasks we set for ourselves. Failures are like emotional colds that when left untreated, can turn into psychological pneumonias.

3. Loneliness: We all have periods in which we feel lonely, as though our existing relationships are not fulfilling our emotional needs. The problem is that the longer we feel lonely and disconnected, the weaker our 'relationship muscles' become.

4. Loss: We regularly experience losses in life; when relatives pass away, a friend moves out of town, our kids leave home, or our favorite pet dies. How we rebuild our lives after a loss can determine whether we emerge emotionally stronger from the ordeal, or psychologically weaker.

5. Brooding and Rumination: It is easy to get caught in cycles of brooding and ruminating in which we feel a compelling urge to stew on sad or angry feelings and find it difficult to think of anything else. But doing so is like picking on our emotional scabs--it doesn't allow them to heal.

6. Guilt: We spend several hours a week experiencing mild to moderate guilt which when excessive, can hijack our attention and make it difficult for us to concentrate on our work and responsibilities. Lingering guilt can posion our most cherished relationships and sometimes, impact entire families.

7. Low Self-Esteem: We often experience bouts of low self-esteem—days in which we feel incredibly low and self-critical about ourselves and our capacities. Having low self-esteem is like having a weakened emotional immune system--it makes us more vulnerable and more likley to sustain further psychological injury.

How One Psychological Injury Causes Another

Each of these psychological ‘injuries’ can impact our emotional well-being and even our physical health, especially if the injury is prolonged. A sprain to the forearm can make us overcompensate and injure our shoulder muscle as a result, which in turn can cause stress on our back muscles, such that we might end up having trouble walking. Psychological injuries can aggravate one another in similar ways. Untreated rejection can cause damage to our self-esteem, which can make us behave defensively and push people away, which can makes us become more socially isolated, at which point we find ourselves feeling lonely and brooding about how our friends have stopped caring, which can lead to a full blown depression.

Treating our psychological injuries as soon as they occur can prevent this cascade effect and minimize the likelihood of small injuries accumulating and becoming much bigger in time.

Applying Emotional First Aid to Psychological Injuries

The first step in treating psychological injuries is developing the awareness that we need to do so. The most common form of ‘treatment’ we usually apply when we feel emotional pain is to talk to a friend or loved one about our feelings. Sometimes, that person is truly a great listener who expresses empathy and support, who tells you exactly what you need to hear in that moment, and who knows you well enough to restore your confidence and feelings of self-worth. But let's be honest, such friends are extremely rare.

Even if we have a cadre of loyal and supportive friends, we will still benefit from taking action ourselves; dressing our own wounds, soothing our own emotional pain, interrupting cycles of damaging thoughts that echo in our minds, or rebuilding feelings of self-worth. Unfortunately, the exact nature of psychological wounds each injury elicits and the corresponding treatments we need to apply to each of those wounds is far beyond the scope of a single article, the first and most valuable step you can take right away is to increase your awareness, to recognize you need to take action when you sustain a psychological injury. Give thought to your emotional needs in such times, and take steps to apply emotional first aid techniques by reading other articles, and finding the techniques that work best for you. In time, you will develop your own psychological medicine cabinet—one you can use for many years to come, and one you can share with your children and family members.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

For detailed discussions of the psychological wounds we sustain in daily life and the best ways to treat them, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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