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First Aid For The Soul

by - 13 March

One of the most influential psychologist and author Guy Winch on why we need to practice emotional hygiene, on our emotional vulnerability in the social media and how to become emotionally resilient. 

Although we have bandages for cuts, most of us have no idea how to treat day-to-day emotional injuries such as failure, rejection, and loss. But these kinds of emotional injuries often get worse when left untreated and can significantly impact our quality of life. 
I talked to Guy Winch, a famous psychologist, TED speaker and author whose books have been translated into 21 languages, about the need to take our emotional health as seriously as we take our physical health and how to handle emotional pains. 
Listen to my interview with him here:

We usually need first aid in cases of emergencies. Does the title of your book "Emotional first aid" suggests that we as a human kind are in state of emergency in relation to our emotional state? 
We use first aid in not that much of a real emergency because we tend to use regular first-aid at home: we use bandage etc. We all have that at home. We don't run to the doctor. And I wrote the book with the same idea in mind - that this would be tools that people could use by themselves, in their homes, without having to see a mental health professional. But I do agree that there is a certain emergency in terms of how we regard our psychological health and how much we tend to ignore emotional pain when we have it. I think that is the state of emergency because we are really doing a terrible job so far.

Why do we ignore that? Why most people act like they are protected against emotional pain?
They act more as if it shouldn't matter. If you have a really sharp pain in your body that goes on and on, you would be aware that it matters and that it might be a sign that something's not okay. In other words our body sends us signals when something's wrong so that we can take care of it. And our mind does that in similar way except we ignore that signal. So we tend to think that if people are strong charactered they should be able to ignore emotional pain but if somebody is strong charactered they wouldn't ignore a broken arm so I don't see the connection.

Why it is still considered as a sign of weakness to reveal that you experience an emotional pain? Why it is so hard to talk about that? Why do we prefer to deal with that all alone? 
First of all because of stigma. In other words in our society we really don't distinguish between people who have mental illness and people who are just having problems. Most people are in the middle there. They are not mentally ill but they have problems, they have an emotional pain. Just like somebody might not be physically ill but they get coughs and they get cold and they sprain their muscles. We can go to the doctor with this cough or a sprain but we can't go for something mild in terms of psychology. There's a real ignorance about the way in which we are really impacted by these small emotional kinds of wounds. But they are the ones that can then get bigger and create much bigger problems.

Could we judge alone when we are just unhappy and when we are in depression?Most people don't know the difference. A lot of people said to me "I've been feeling really depressed today". Well if it's just today, that's not depression. You've been in a really bad mood today. Or you've been really sad today or you just lost your parent and you are feeling grief today. But that's not depression. Depression is a much more serious condition. It has to last for a minimum amount of time - usually at least two weeks or more and it has to be very, very pervasive. In other words it has to really be like a grey fog that fell on your head, that everything is more slow, that you're walking through mud or trough water. That's not a bad mood or an emotional pain you get when the person you went out with broke up with you. So we can't distinguish between those things and it's a problem that we can't.
Unhappiness or being sad is usually a temporary state. It's usually a reaction to something. Grief is a reaction to loss. And sadness can be a reaction to a certain condition. A bad mood can be a reaction to a hundred different things. Bad mood can be a reaction to losing a video game and that's not depression. But if you ask most people how they felt in that moment when they had a bad mood: "Are you in a bad mood? Are you depressed?", they might not be sure. That's why we need to do so much more education because yes, there is a big difference. People should know the difference.

In your TED talk you mention that your brother though with cancer had positive attitude. Why are some people more emotionally stable than others. Are they born so? 
That it's absolutely true. There are some people who are just more emotionally resilient. There's a certain percentage of people that may be born that way. Some people may be just developed that way in terms of their environment. But there are some people who are just very emotionally resilient. They bounce back, they stay very positive, very optimistic. They say okay, fine, how do I get around that hurdle? What do I need to do to make it right? How much do I have to continue until it works? Just their attitude is extraordinary positive. And my brother's attitude was like that. Even when he was first diagnosed with cancer, his attitude was ok, I'm going to figure out what I need to get healthy. When he was diagnosed, he began eating right and running, he eventually started running marathons. He was somebody who has really decided "I'm fighting back, I'm not gonna let this conquer me". And it's a wonderful attitude. And if you're not born with it, you can actually adopt it, you can take steps to develop that kind of attitude and it's a wonderful one to have.

How could we develop it? How could we become emotionally resilient​?
There is a chapter in the book where I talk about failure. Failure is an interesting thing because we all fail all the time. It's a common part of life. But when we're adults we don't fail a thousand different ways. We tend to have a few 3-4 typical mistakes we make. And we tend to repeat those mistakes in all kinds of varieties.
So for example somebody might have a problem with time management. They never finish the task on time, they never get to places on time. That's what's costing them in their careers, in their relationships. Everyone knows people with time management problems. And what's interesting about that, is that these are people, who obviously know they have a time management problem and yet keep making the same mistakes over and over again. So you would think why aren't they learning it? And part of why they're not learning is because they don't have the mindset of: "When I fail at something, that will actually tell me what I have to change, what habits I have that don't work for me". So they don't go back into their lateness or the time management and try and figure out "What was my assumption that was wrong? or What mistake did I make?" They just go: "Oh, well. I tried". or "That's me. I'm always late. People always say I'm always late". As if they've accepted that in themselves.
If you start to look at failures as the place where you'll find the hints, the clues that will tell you how to fix so many things in your life, and you go in, you investigate how did this go wrong, what can I do to make sure it doesn't go wrong next time, then failure can be the most instructive, wonderful, learning tool, you would ever encounter. But you have to think about failure as a wonderful and instructive learning tool as opposed to a disappointing and demoralizing horrible thing.

What about failures in relationships?And people who are always in wrong relationships? 
We don't think about what are the things that I'm looking for in a relationship and if they really work for me. There's somebody I used to work with, who was very ambitious person and he wanted a very ambitious wife. Which is great, except the two of them were so ambitious that they've never been connected well in their relationship. Because they were each so focused on their careers. He really wanted somebody, who could be supportive of his career, but was not that focused​ on a career of her own. And she really wanted somebody who would be supportive of her career. They thought this is the best person for me, somebody just like me, but in fact it wasn't. And it took her a very long time to figure out this is just not really the kind of man she was looking for. "I thought it was, but it wasn't". And people might have to go to five or six relationships for the same kind of person, sometimes they look alike. And if you look at all your exes, if they all look the same way, that's telling you something, especially if all didn't work out.

Why does it take so long to recover from some psychological injuries like break-up, rejection and failure? When should we ask for help? 
First of all because we're not trying to recover from them. In other words if you have a cold and you're coughing for over a week and your cold doesn't get better, most of us are aware that it's been a week, I need antibiotics, I need to go to the doctor. We're aware that if something is lingering, then it means we might need to take additional steps. Because we try to rest, we try to drink warm fluids, we tried to do what we know to do. When it comes to emotional injuries or psychological injuries, we're actually not trying to treat them. We're just trying to get on with life. But not to actually address the actual injury. So of course it takes a long time to recover.
The other thing is we often make the injury worse. When we get rejected, we often become very self-critical. So if part of the injury is that our self-esteem is damaged and what we're doing the next months is going around saying "I'm such a loser. I'm such an idiot. I wish I was taller. I wish I was better looking". If that's what we're saying to ourselves, as many people do, then you're actually making the injury worse. When it comes to psychological injury, we are literally at the point where we have to get people to stop making the injuries worst and teaching them how to make them better.

How could we break the habit of ruminating? Does a 2-minute distraction really help? 
The research shows that when you're ruminating, when you're just thinking about upsetting things over and over again, but without problem solving, without trying to find solutions, without trying to gain insight. When you're doing that, it's very damaging. But it can feel very compelling. You feel like you must think of it, you have to visit that conversation with a friend over and over. But 2 minutes of a distraction, as long as it requires concentration, is usually enough for the urge to pass. But you have to do that each time. And then if we can do that each time, within a few days the general urge will pass and it'll be less strong.

Could we really control our mind? Our thoughts?
We can control some and we can trick our minds the same way our minds try to trick us. For example if you wake up and your natural mind is to think of three things that are upsetting your day: "I have to go to work and uh, I have to do this and I wish I didn't have to do that", so if that's what popped into your mind, as soon as you're awake, maybe it might be difficult for you to not think those thoughts, but you can add in three positive thoughts on purpose. You can say "I'm going to think about these three things that I'm looking forward to today. We're supposed to have lunch with a friend and I'm looking forward to that, and it's supposed to be sunny out so I'm looking forward to a nice walk to my office, and I'm supposed to meet friends and go to a movie later so I'm looking forward to that". In other words you might not be able to control your mind trying to bring up the negatives but you can insert the positive and that will balance it out. And over time your mind will be more used to positive and less used to negative.

Are we more emotionally vulnerable in the digital era? 
We used to be emotionally vulnerable primarily from our relationship but now our relationships are not just the people in our home people, in our office and our friends. Now our relationships are the thousand people we have on our Twitter feeds and the 3000 Facebook friends, and our other followers on Instagram and Pinterest and LinkedIn​. People really have a life on their social media and they care about that life. If you liked all the pictures of your friends on Instagram and Facebook and then you put up a bunch of pictures that are really important and they didn't like them, you'll feel a little neglected, you'll be little rejected. Now the truth is your friend actually might have just been hit by a car and got to be lying in the hospital, but you'll still be very upset until you hear that there was an excuse. Or your friend might say:"Oh, I saw your picture but I was too busy to like them but I thought they were great". At which point you'll feel relieved and that's probably the case. Except in the absence of that information, you are actually going to feel rejected and ignored, and therefore will be hurt. So the social media are actual. These are places in which we have relationships and therefore there are places in which we have emotional pain.

How emotional pain could affect our life if we ignored it? 
It often can get worse. If you after a rejection start avoiding the things you think are potentially painful, then that can cause you to withdraw and that can cause you to become more anxious when you go back to it. It can cause you to start feeling lonely and when you start feeling lonely, you can start being more self-critical and you can start to feel that other people don't like and respect you enough, and that will make you even more intimidated to go back to things. This is because you ignored the initial emotional pain. Because there was a wound there that not only you didn't take care of, you actually made it worse by your response to it. A lot of psychological wounds are like that: they can get worse if we ignore them.

Could you tell me 5 first-aid steps for helping ourselves when we feel lost?
I would try to figure out what is we are upset about. Is it a failure just happened, did we lose someone, were we rejected, are we feeling depressed or feeling lonely. You have to figure out what's holding you back, what's actually hurting. One way to do that is you can visualize whatever the next step would be for you: is it  getting back on the dating site, is it  asking your boss for a promotion, is it you trying to apply to a specific job again. If you can visualize what that would be like, and whether that bothers you, then maybe there's something there that is scary to you and then you have to figure out why would that be scary. If it's something that I want, am I worried about rejection, is it related to the last time I was rejected, or the last time I failed? You could try to figure out what it's related to, so you know what to treat.

What do you mean by saying that loneliness is contagious?
They did a study where they look at social networks and at lonely people within the social networks. They tracked the social networks for six months and they saw that within those networks lonely people moved to the periphery, to the outskirts of the social network over time, as just their ties to people are weakening and they are moving away from the center to the edges of the social network. But they also found that the people around the people who are lonely also were moving out of the center of the social network. Just the association with a lonely person had an impact of making the people less connected in their own social networks. The assumption there is, that the stigma of loneliness is a little bit contagious and the mindset of loneliness is a little bit contagious. Because it's very negative. It's like people don't care, no one really cares about you, no one's really a good friend. All those negative thoughts, which when you hear from another person who is near you, you can start thinking a little bit as well. And that influences your own behavior. So there was something contagious.

In your TED talk you said that despite you were surrounded by people all day in NYC you felt lonely. Why is that? Why so often we feel emotionally disconnected from those around us?
That happened​ really when I just came to New York City. Because I went to school, I made the assumption incorrectly that I'll meet people in school. I didn't actually make it a goal to make friends. I didn't actually make it a goal to actually create a life here. I'm gonna be here a long time, even if it was just a school, that was going to be 5-6 years. So I need to actually have roots, I need to have a social circle. I just thought that if I'm going to school and I'm surrounded by people that will be enough. I just didn't pay attention to it and then after a number of months it was really affecting me. Most people think of loneliness as an objective thing- that they don't have many friends. But you could be surrounded by people at work and you can be at home and just feel disconnected. Because you're not opening up to them, you're not creating the deeper relationships, the deeper bonds that you require emotionally. And so just having all these superficial friendships and relationships is not sufficient to those people. We need something deeper, we need to feel understood, we need to feel connected, we need to feel rooted. And sometimes that takes actual work and attention to develop those things when they're lacking. When most people move to a new city, on their to-do list is not to create deep bonds. It's just find a job, find an apartment, figure out where the grocery store is, get to know your neighbors. But it's not create deep relationships. But if you're going to be somewhere for a long time, you need it.

Do you think we are lonelier now in the digital era? 
The digital era provides a lot of opportunity on the one hand. And on the other hand it can have a dual effect. If you are feeling a little isolated and you go on Facebook and you see a group of your friends together on vacation, and another group of people you know who are all hanging out at the club, and other people you know are all at a convention together for business and here you are alone. So Facebook can make people feel depressed, can make people feel lonely. Because people typically put the good part of their life on Facebook. Nobody puts pictures from the vacation they absolutely hated. Everyone puts up the wonderful pictures and so it makes you think that everyone's life is better than yours. It can make you feel lonely. But at the same time social media can also provide us opportunities but we have to see that and take action. But when we're lonely we tend to be so pessimistic and passive so that we failed to see the opportunities that arise.

How do we teach our children emotional first-aid?
A lot of the techniques that I talk about in the book are ones we can teach children. The most important thing you can do to children is just educate them about the mind and feelings and how those work. Because all feelings are what they are but not all of them are accurate. We need to be able to know when our mind is telling us the right thing and when our mind is not telling us the right thing.

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