Practicing Emotional Hygiene
By: Louisa Busher.
Wash your hands before you eat. Brush your teeth before bed. Put a plaster over a cut so it doesn’t become infected. Practicing good hygiene is something that many of us are encouraged to do from a young age. Yet when it comes to our emotional and psychological health it is something we often overlook and neglect.
Just as we sustain physical injuries, we also experience injuries on an emotional level. These can be small wounds that heal without much attention. For example, the fleeting feeling of rejection when a friend cancels or our passing annoyance when a stranger is rude to us. These are the emotional equivalent to a small bruise or cut, real but often relatively minor in the grand scheme of our lives.
At other times though these injuries are much more significant and, if left ignored, can have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. For example, the rejection we feel when our relationship ends or the deep hurt we experienced when we felt unloved as a child. Their emotional equivalent can be likened to a deep-rooted infection or a broken bone, definitely real and in need of some attention if we want to be healthy.
Now that we understand why emotional hygiene is important, let’s explore how we can practice and incorporate it into our lives. Guy Winch, a psychologist known for his work on Emotional First Aid (1) looks at ways we can keep ourselves emotionally healthy.
Recognise and treat – like physical pain, emotional pain also has symptoms that tell us something is wrong. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings will allow them the space they deserve and in time helps you to process them. So next time you find yourself having an emotional reaction, allow it to come to the surface (however painful) and ask yourself what it is telling you. Sometimes even the most inconsequential event can leave us feeling sad, angry, or lonely, and this often speaks to deeper pain.
Know your baggage – the more we begin to acknowledge our emotions and feelings, the more we can unpick them. All of us are ‘triggered’ by certain events or circumstances. For example, on the surface, the situation where our friend cancelled might seem relatively small. Yet when we look deeper we recognise that we are carrying feelings of loneliness and disconnection and this situation has triggered them. Leaving our emotional wounds untreated means that we blindly recreate the same patterns and problems within our lives without recognising where they are coming from. As soon as we start to understand our ‘baggage’ it has less power over us, and we can start to work through it to live happier and healthier lives.
Reach out – we all need other people and reaching out to loved ones during difficult times reminds us that we aren’t alone. By speaking about our feelings and experiences we begin to normalise them. We recognise that many of us share the same worries and pain which can bring relief. Talking to others can also give us different perspectives. Ruminating and being ‘stuck in our own heads’ can lead to spiraling thoughts which create low mood and anxiety on a longer-term basis. Speaking with a professional can also be a good alternative. There are times in our lives when family and friends don’t feel available to us or can’t contain how we feel and this is where seeking professional help can be beneficial. By understanding our pain we can also start to recognise other people’s pain. If you know a friend is going through a difficult patch, and you feel able to, reach out to them. These moments help strengthen our relationships, making them more meaningful, fulfilling, and consistent.
Be kind – our inner voice is often our worst critic. Begin recognising when you are speaking negatively to yourself and challenge these thoughts. Write them down and balance these with alternative, measured thoughts. For example, ‘I’m a failure because I made a mistake at work’ can become ‘I made a mistake but that was a learning opportunity’ and ‘I also did many other things (insert list) well today’. Reframe your thoughts and you will be surprised at how quickly your internal dialogue changes.
Be gentle – prepare yourself for difficult days by knowing what helps you feel better. Just like you know which type of painkiller works for you when you have a headache, there will also be things which help your difficult days. For example, does reading a book calm you down? Does doing something active distract and help you shake the feelings out? Does speaking with a friend give you a new perspective?
Find meaning – throughout our lifetime we will experience challenges, pain, and sadness. Some of these will be triggered by major events, for example, the loss of a loved one, a damaging relationship, or ill-health. Knowing this doesn’t make them less painful, but over time finding meaning in our experiences can help us feel more at ease with our stories. When you are ready, alongside acknowledging the painful feelings, start to reflect on what you learned from your experiences. You can do this just by reflecting quietly with yourself, speaking about it with a loved one or professional, or writing your thoughts down.
It is important that we begin to reframe how we think about emotional health if we want to live in a healthy way. Just as we have physical health that we try to sustain, we also have emotional and psychological health which requires the same amount of effort. It is especially important to recognise our triggers as this often points to our baggage and unfinished business. By beginning to recognise and treat these wounds, we can start to break our patterns, feel healthier in the present, and know what tools we can use in the future. Through getting to know our own pain and discomfort, we can also start to understand that of other people and realise that we all have emotional health that needs to be nourished and looked after.
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(1) TED Guest Author. (2015). 7 Ways to Practice Emotional First Aid [online]. Available from: https://ideas.ted.com/7-ways-to-practice-emotional-first-aid/