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Emotional first aid

If we graze a knee, we reach for disinfectant and plasters, but how do we heal emotional cuts and bruises? Martha Roberts investigates

by Psychologies

Very few of us see emotional cuts and grazes in the same way as we do a physical injury, but that is a mistake, says Guy Winch, psychologist and author of the book Emotional First Aid (Plume Books, £14.99). ‘We sustain emotional traumas, like rejection or failure, even more regularly than we do physical ones,’ says Winch. ‘And, like physical wounds, they can get worse when we don’t treat them. This can impact on our daily and long-term functioning and happiness. By treating these battle scars when we sustain them, we can heal more quickly and minimise their negative impact on our lives.’

So, when next you feel the weight of life bearing heavily on your shoulders, here’s what to reach for in your psychological medicine cabinet to give you a lift.

1. Loneliness

Hanging out at weekends with other single mates; a weekly catch-up with your best friend; the presence of teenage children in the house – these things give structure and meaning to life. So, what happens when single friends settle down into relationships, or your best buddy moves to another country, or your kids leave home?

In these scenarios, says Winch, loneliness can creep up on us – our nourishing social circle can slip away, and we can find ourselves spending more and more time alone. ‘This damages our self-esteem, with feelings of ‘‘what’s wrong with me?”,’ says Elle Boag, social psychologist at Birmingham City University.

The damage inflicted

These situations can lead you to retreat into your shell, says psychotherapist and corporate psychologist, Kate Nowlan. ‘Feeling unloved can be the loneliest feeling in the world. It reminds you of all the times when you have ever been rejected – those occasions when you were left out of playground games – and can leave you feeling desperate.’

You may start to lose your ability to see things from the other person’s perspective – your friends and children are happy, but all you can think about is how this contrasts with your own isolation.

Loneliness is a significant contributor to depression,’ says psychotherapist, Hope Bastine. ‘It is endemic to our social media-driven society and, as a result, we are becoming less and less comfortable talking about our true thoughts, feelings and emotions.’

Effective first aid

Treatment of loneliness involves challenging negative perceptions. Try to think, ‘Maybe my new friend’s boyfriend has some nice friends…’ rather than, ‘She cares about him more than our friendship.’ Bastine recommends being brave about connecting from the heart. ‘Take a risk and talk to someone about something that is authentic and meaningful to your personal world.’

Crucially, you need to create new opportunities for social connection. This is a good time to approach clubs, or to look for new friends through websites, such as Meetup. Identify any self-defeating behaviours that are getting in the way, for example, feeling reluctant to show up alone for fear of seeming like a ‘loner’. The bottom line is that you have to recognise loneliness as a place that needs effort, courage and a leap of faith to escape from.

2. Rejection

You think your relationship is working fine, when suddenly your partner says they want out. Or perhaps you’ve been on a great date, only to be told, ‘Sorry, but I just don’t fancy you.’

The damage inflicted

Winch says that rejection can cause emotional pain ‘so sharp, it affects our thinking’, a flood of anger, the erosion of self-esteem and the destabilisation of our fundamental feeling of belonging. Studies have shown that even mild rejection stings – participants who were excluded in a virtual ball-throwing game felt significant emotional pain. And we carry the memory of the rejection long after the event. Bastine says: ‘Psychological fMRI scans show that even being reminded of the object of your rejection can be as painful as being burnt on a stove.’

Effective first aid

This is a time to start reframing. Write down negative or self-critical thoughts about the rejection, then the counterarguments next to them. Whenever you have a self-critical thought, immediately articulate the relevant counterargument clearly in your mind. Counterarguments are anything that can inject some rationale and objectivity into a situation that is otherwise fraught with emotion.

For example, counterarguments for dating rejection could include the absence of chemistry, a poor lifestyle match, or even being ‘too good’ for the other person – perhaps your career success holds a mirror up to their own failings. There is also the important matter of timing – maybe you want a relationship and they want a fling. If you start to criticise yourself physically, the counterarguments would focus on your strengths, and the fact that everyone has parts of themselves they’d like to change.

‘Eventually, when you’ve had some rest and space, look at the reasons for the rejection and ask whether you could have behaved in another way,’ says Nowlan. ‘Maybe, in fact, your inner-being released you from a situation that might not have made you happy.’

3. Failure

Whether it’s not getting that promotion you wanted, or the feeling of not having achieved enough, failure can be tough. Winch says: ‘Failing can induce you to feel less intelligent, less attractive, less capable, less skilful and less competent – all of which have a negative impact on your confidence.

The damage inflicted

Failure damages your self-esteem, as you draw distorted conclusions about yourself, sapping confidence and optimism, and potentially sabotaging future efforts. If you were fired, it could blow a hole right through your self-belief – even though, as Winch explains, the rejection may be ‘motivated by dynamics related to the organisation and its culture, not to your character or job performance’.

Effective first aid

It’s important to focus on factors in your control. Andy Cope, author of Little Book Of Emotional Intelligence (John Murray Learning, £9.99), says: ‘In psychology, we hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder but less about post-traumatic growth, when an epic failure of adversity has enabled us to grow in confidence or resilience.’ He says that next time you ‘fail’, ask yourself what you have learned, what you would have done differently and how this has made you a better person.

4. Rumination

Whether it’s stressing out about a friend not calling, or fixating on being wronged, all of us ruminate at times. Winch says that, while self-reflection can be helpful, it can go awry. Instead of getting emotional release, you replay distressing scenes and feelings.

The damage inflicted

Rumination intensifies sadness, prolongs anger, steals emotional and intellectual energy, and is often a precursor to depression. It can also jeopardise relationships because of our need to constantly talk about what has gone wrong. ‘We become like hamsters trapped in a wheel, running endlessly but going nowhere,’ says Winch. ‘What makes rumination a form of psychological injury is that it provides no new understanding that could heal our wounds.’

Effective first aid

Research has shown that, when it comes to rumination, simply trying not to think about it doesn’t work – you need a plan. Write a list of situations in which you ruminate the most and, for each, list short and long distractions, for example, a game of sudoku, watching a movie or going for a walk. Schedule in a ‘break’ of 20 to 30 minutes a day where you are allowed to ruminate. Discipline yourself to save any worries that pop into your head at other times for later. Let go of things you can’t control.

If your ruminating consists of a jumble of scenarios, write a list of them and decide which you can control (tackling your tax return) and which you can’t (worrying about decisions someone else is going to make). ‘Rumination provides a means of exaggerating mundane events, so try to recognise when you’re doing this,’ says Boag. Take stock, stop, breathe and empty your mind. Think about a likely explanation. Does your friend no longer like you, or is she just busy?

Watch Guy Winch’s TED Talk on emotional first aid. For more about Meetup, visit meetup.com

Photograph: iStock