Practicing Emotional First Aid during Covid-19
Emotional injuries can be just as debilitating as physical ones, yet they are not weighted nearly as seriously. While we may take the time to treat and attend to our physical wounds, we are often expected to just “get over” psychological wounds. All of us have at some point ruminated over a painful rejection or agonized over a failure.
With less distraction and more time on our hands, some of the psychological wounds that have not been attended to in our past may be resurfacing unexpectedly. How could we attend to them now? Is it time we learnt how to practice emotional first aid? In a recent Ted Talk, Psychologist Guy Winch talks about the ways in which we might do this:
Pay attention to emotional pain — recognize it when it happens and treat it before it becomes overwhelming.
Our bodies evolved the sensation of physical pain to alert us that something is wrong and we need to address it. The same is also true for emotional pain. If a rejection, failure or bad mood is not getting better, it means we’ve sustained a psychological wound which needs attention. Loneliness can be very damaging to both our psychological and physical health, and should be addressed when someone is feeling socially or emotionally isolated.
Redirect your gut reaction when you fail.
The nature of psychological wounds makes it easy for one thing to lead to another. Failure often drives us to focus on what we can’t do rather than focusing on what we can, making us less likely to perform at our best, which in turn makes us even more focused on our shortcomings, and before we know it we are in a negative spiral. To avoid getting sucked into this spiral, learn to ignore the post-failure “gut” reaction of feeling helpless and demoralized, and instead 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.
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. Therefore, it is important to monitor it and avoid putting yourself down, particularly when you are already hurting. Practicing self-compassion will “heal” a damaged self-esteem. Instead of being critical of yourself, imagine what you might say to a friend in the same position as you. How would you show them compassion and support?
When negative thoughts are taking over, disrupt them with positive distraction.
Ruminating over distressing events in your mind without seeking new insight or trying to solve a problem, especially when it becomes habitual, can lead to deeper psychological pain. Try instead to distract yourself by engaging in a task that requires concentration (do a Sudoku or complete a crossword). Studies show that even two minutes of distraction will reduce the urge to focus unhealthily on the negative.
Find meaning in loss.
Loss is an unavoidable part of life, which can scar us and keep us from moving forward if we don’t attend to the emotional wounds it creates. In order to move on from a loss it is important to find meaning in the loss and derive some sort of purpose from it. This might feel difficult to imagine at the time, but think of what you might have gained from the loss (for instance, “I lost my job, but I’ve found an even better one”). 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.
Don’t let excessive guilt linger.
Guilt can be useful in small doses, as it alerts you to amend your actions in your relationship with another person. Excessive guilt is toxic though, and wastes emotional and intellectual energies, distracting you from other tasks, and preventing you from moving forward. To resolve lingering guilt you need to offer an effective apology — which includes an “empathy statement.” It’s important for your apology to focus more on how your actions (or inactions) impacted the other person, than explaining why you did what you did. It is much easier to forgive someone when you feel they truly understand.
Learn what treatments for emotional wounds work for you.
Notice how you, personally, deal with common emotional wounds. Do you shrug them off, get really upset but recover quickly, get upset and recover slowly, or supress your feelings? Now consider how best to attend to yourself in these various situations. 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.
Some of these concepts may feel quite strange to begin with, and integrating them might take a while before they become a habit, but in the long run practicing emotional first aid will seriously elevate your entire quality of life.