How do we keep our mind “clean and healthy”? It’s not like we could brush it like teeth or wash it with soap like our bodies. But just like our teeth and bodies, our minds can be prone to emotional clutter. This can bog us down and prevent us from living our best life if we don’t practice psychological hygiene regularly.
What is emotional hygiene?
Emotional hygiene is “Being mindful of our psychological health and adopting brief daily habits to monitor and address psychological wounds when we sustain them” (Guy Winch, Ph.D., Psychology Today). Many of us have no idea how to do this. Dr. Guy Winch in his TED Talk said that we prioritize more on the state of our physical health than our psychological health. For example, when we get a wound, we are taught that we must disinfect and treat it so that it will heal. Nobody would poke or cut the wound deeper! But when we are facing an emotional wound, let’s say a failure, many of us wallow in self-pity or blame ourselves over and over again for failing, making ourselves feel even worse. We don’t know that when we leave an emotional wound untreated, we keep our self-esteem down. When this happens, we tend to run into the same trouble over and over again. It can escalate into a worse state of mind (for example, depression, suicidal thoughts) and damage ourselves further.
“when we get a wound, we know that we must disinfect it and treat it so that it will heal. Nobody would poke or cut the wound deeper! But when we face an emotional wound, let’s say a failure, many of us wallow in self-pity or blame ourselves over and over again for failing, making ourselves feel worse.”
Aside from failure, other psychological wounds we might face include trauma (loss of a loved one, abuse or violence, major accident, etc.), rejection (social or professional) or abandonment and isolation. In our lives as newcomers, we’ll experience these emotional wounds in the course of our settlement and integration. Some of us may have even suffered trauma before coming here. Many of us carry the pain as emotional baggage for years. The strain can manifest both psychologically (stress, anxiety, depression) and physically (headaches, hypertension and other diseases). In fact, experts found that chronic loneliness resulting in emotional and social disconnect increases the likelihood of an early death by 14%.
This is why emotional hygiene is essential; when we address psychological wounds properly and work daily at building emotional resilience, our quality of life increases.
Best ways to practice emotional hygiene
Dr. Winch calls it “Emotional First-Aid.” You should do the following immediately after suffering emotional injuries:
Recognize when you’re in emotional pain
Pay attention when you don’t feel well emotionally. Don’t ignore it and let it fester; it will be harder to deal with it later. For example, take action when you feel lonely. Ask yourself the reasons for feeling this way. Isolated? Try talking to a friend. Heartbroken? Reach out to someone who may have good advice for you. Or maybe you’re just sad because you need more light? SAD or winter blues can happen from fall through the winter months. You may need to see a doctor. Whatever the reason for the pain, pay attention. Assess it and do what you can to ease it as soon as you can. If you can’t figure it out or have no energy and means to ease your pain, ask for help. Don’t hesitate to seek a counsellor, advisor or doctor.
Be gentle and compassionate with yourself
This can be hard to do. A lot of us are conditioned from birth to blame ourselves when something goes wrong. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, smart enough, or that we didn’t work hard enough. It’s very easy for us to develop an extreme form of self-criticism which, instead of helping us, robs us of our self-esteem. Keeping our self-esteem healthy is essential to our survival. “It is like an emotional immune system that buffers you from emotional pain and strengthens your emotional resilience” (Guy Winch, 7 ways to practice emotional first aid). Protect your self-esteem by practicing self-compassion. Here are a few suggestions to do this:
- Relax. Sip some tea. Take deep breaths (meditate if you can).
- Recognize that it is impossible that everything is your fault. There are many factors that go into any situation.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Know that the situation may be bad today but things will get better.
- Look at the situation as a learning experience.
This is important: Being gentle to yourself doesn’t mean lying to yourself and saying that you are blameless, or that you are too amazing to be facing difficulties. There is value in assessing a situation and seeing what we personally did wrong – it prevents us from committing the same mistake again. What I am saying here is to be objective. Own up to your mistake, resolve to do better and move on. There is no value in or beating yourself up or being overly mean to yourself. It will not make you a better person.
Ruminating is replaying a bad experience in your head. Many of us do this and it easily becomes a habit. This is bad for us because we allow distress to clutter our mind. By doing this again and again, we are teaching our minds to focus only on the negative – on things we can’t do or change. When you notice that you are starting to ruminate, prevent it by distracting yourself until the urge to do it passes. Concentrate on something else like solving a puzzle, taking a walk or physical exercise. Winch says that just a few minutes of distraction helps reduce negative focus.
Change your response to failure
Dwelling on failure has a demotivating effect – it makes you feel helpless and less competent. When recovering from failure, try to focus on what you can do and not what on what you can’t. It may help if you make a list of the lessons you learned and the things that you would do better if presented with the same opportunity again. Plan, set new goals and prepare yourself. Try again and again. We’ve seen that persistence pays off in the lives of many successful people.
Building social connections, haveTHATtalk.ca (note: The 211 helpline is in Ottawa. Please check Community Resources below for Manitoba helplines).
These steps require changing your mindset in order to start taking up healthy mental habits. It will not be easy. But like anything that is worth doing, it will require effort and discipline. Do your best to practice these on a regular basis. In the end, you will benefit immensely for having a clean, healthy and resilient mind!
Sources: 5 steps to better emotional hygiene, Guy Winch Ph. D., Psychology Today; 7 ways to practice emotional first-aid, Guy Winch Ph.D., Ideas.Ted.Com; and Emotional First-Aid, Nicholette Leanza, Med, LPCC-S, Psych Central. Accessed September 18, 2019.
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