Emotional First Aid

Most of us pay fairly close attention to our physical health. We practice self-care by placing a bandage on a wound or taking an aspirin for a headache. We see our doctor if we aren’t feeling better. However, most of us don’t give much thought to our emotional health. In fact, we often know very little about our feelings and how they impact our psychological health.

The importance of practicing emotional first aid is the subject of Why we All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid, a Ted Talk by psychologist Guy Winch. Winch is author of Emotional First Aid, Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and other Everyday Hurts.

Winch says that although emotional pain is no less important than physical pain, we ignore psychological pain, or just “get over it.” The problem, however, is that emotional wounds take longer to heal, and if ignored, will continue to hurt.

On the other hand, Winch says our quality of life can improve rapidly and drastically if we learn to practice emotional first aid. Winch encourages us to pay more attention to emotional pain. In his TED talk, he uses three common emotions as examples:


Loneliness is a common but very negative emotion that most people have experienced. Loneliness should never be taken lightly, as the emotion can not only make you miserable, it can increase the likelihood of early death by 14 percent. Chronic loneliness, Winch says, presents a health risk equal to cigarette smoking.


After a failure, it’s natural to feel hopeless and demoralized. This is the time to gain control and break the cycle of negative emotions, Winch says. Instead of sinking into negativity, take stock and think about what we can control and how we might improve the outcome by doing things differently next time.


Following a painful rejection, Winch says we should treat ourselves gently, with the same type of compassion we would expect from a good friend. Instead of caring for ourselves, he says we tend to beat ourselves up, focusing on our faults and shortcomings and further undermining our damaged self-esteem.

Finch offers the following tips for practicing emotional first aid:

  • Take action. Pay attention and learn to recognize emotional pain when it occurs. Like physical pain, emotional pain lets us know when something isn’t right.

  • Learn to ignore gut reactions that leave you feeling helpless.

  • Don’t play difficult events over and over in your mind. Instead, disrupt negative thoughts with positive distractions such as a crossword puzzle. Although ruminating on the events is a powerful urge and a difficult habit to break, the habit has considerable negative impact on our wellbeing.

  • Practice new ways of thinking. If time has passed and you’re still stuck and unable to move forward, think about what you may have gained from the experience and how you can garner a new appreciation for life.

  • Nip excessive guilt in the bud. Although guilt has a useful purpose, lingering or unresolved guilt can be extremely toxic. If you have wronged another person and your guilt is justified, apologize and make amends, even if you’ve already apologized. Then, move on.

  • Pay attention to your emotional responses and learn what emotional hygiene techniques are most effective for you. Techniques may vary depending on the situation.

If you have trouble coping with difficult emotions, or if you feel “stuck” in negativity, professional counseling can help you examine and improve negative ways of thinking. If substance abuse is a problem, don’t hesitate to seek drug and alcohol treatment or rehab.

To learn more about emotional hygiene, watch Guy Winch’s TED talk here.

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