You can adopt habits at any stage in life. Period.

if you start adopting emotional hygiene, and you start to pay attention to emotional wounds, you’ll start to realise that you can thrive and get productive and be happy, and you can get much more out of life throughout all the years you live.  

Dr Guy WinchDr Guy Winch, PhD, is the charming TED speaker, who reminded over 2.5 millions of viewers how important it is to pay attention to the bruises and bleeds of our emotional bodies.  He is a licensed psychologist, an internationally acclaimed author whose books have been translated into over twenty languages, and his TED lecture Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid* is rated among the top 5 most inspiring talks on Dr Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Centre. He has been working with individuals, couples, and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992, and on the side is writing the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology and blogs for Huffington Post.

Can we start with making a distinction between a healthy emotionality and an injured one?
My definition of being healthy emotionally is that we know how to deal with emotional wounds. When we are healthy emotionally we are more resilient to emotional wounds, they hurt us less and we can bounce back from them more quickly. But to get the emotional resilience, to become strong emotionally, we have to learn how to treat emotional injuries – and this starts with being able to recognise when you are injured. This is something many of us don’t do because we don’t think of an emotional injury the way we do about physical ones. It is obvious when we get a cut and we are bleeding that there is a problem and we take care of it. It is not obvious to us, though, that if we fail at something and we are getting very demoralised and feeling hopeless and helpless, that this is actually an emotional wound and one that we need to treat and can treat.

What are the main emotional injuries we encounter on a daily basis then?
I think that there are several main emotional injuries we encounter on a daily basis, and the most important one is REJECTION (which is why I open my book with rejection). That is because we experience it today in so many ways that we didn’t before. For instance, if you are out there dating, of course, you would have to deal with rejection; or if you are applying for jobs, schools, universities – you would have to deal with rejection. We also have it socially – colleagues going out to lunch without inviting us, or a neighbour having a barbeque with everybody but us, or friends going out together without us; also family members rejecting us because of disapproving of something we’ve done. And today we also have social media and many people feel rejected when they are posting their pictures on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and people don’t respond – they kind of feel hurt, they feel rejected, they would think ‘I liked their pictures but they didn’t like mine’. So, we are used to be rejected by one person at a time, but now if you have 400 people on your social media, we get rejected by 400 people in one moment.
People actually come to therapy and talk about it, how hurt they felt that people didn’t respond to them on social media.Rejection, I think, is the most common thing that we experience.

Second to rejection is FAILURE. We fail on a regular basis. It is how we learn. Children and toddlers learn by failing and they keep failing until they succeed – this is how you learn how to stand up and how to walk. Most of us encounter failure on a regular basis in our adult lives as well, because we all have certain ambitions and we all have certain goals; it might be the goal to lose weight or to diet, or to clean up the closets, or to prosper in your careers. Whatever the goals are, we often don’t meet them; most people meet only a percentage of the goals that they have set for themselves. They are setting goals but they don’t meet them, and that is experienced as a failure.

GUILT would be next. We tend to feel guilty a lot of the times about small things in our relationships – we forgot to call our mother on her birthday, we didn’t go to our friend’s party, it completely slipped our minds – and all kinds of things like that.

Another very common injury is LONELINESS. A very high percentage of people experience loneliness in their lifetime; many times even people who are actually married with a spouse and a family, but they just feel really disconnected, and that is actually a pretty serious injury.

RUMINATION, BROODING – our tendency to just go over and over, and over an upsetting event in our head is an injury and creates an injury itself. It’s like scratching a wound – it keeps getting infected and we keep scratching it, and it keeps getting worse.

LOSS is also something that we deal with on a regular basis and which can create a wound, especially if we are not really getting over the loss and we are not moving forward.

Basically, those are the main injuries that we experience.

What is the impact of an emotional injury left unhealed?
Certain things you will get over – you can get a cold and you might not have to treat it, and it will get better in a week or so. And certain emotions are like that as well. But quite often emotions linger and if you don’t heal them they create a much worse wound. Let’s look at, for example, failure: when we fail one of the things that happens to us is that our perceptions get distorted, and we begin to perceive the goal we had as being further out of reach, and more difficult than it actually is, and we begin to perceive our abilities as being not as strong as they actually are.

There are experiments where researchers gave people puzzles – the first group got easy puzzles, and the second group received puzzles that seemed easy but were not. The second group failed because of the actual difficulty of the puzzles. In the second round of the experiment they were given very easy puzzles, however, they failed again because the first round convinced them they couldn’t do it. There is this distortion that happens to us when we fail, and a lot of the time it convinces us that we are incapable – and we stop trying. Many people try something once, don’t do well, and give up. And it’s a shame because if they have persisted they could have done very well.

So when we don’t heal emotional injuries they can really get worse, they can really hurt, and they can really impact our lives in pretty dramatic ways, and maybe set us back. The problem is, we might not even notice. In other words, we might be so convinced that we can’t do certain things that we might not try again. If it’s just puzzles that we don’t try again with, its fine – but if its ambitions or hobbies or a carееr, things that are actually important, then we are really missing out. A lot of people settle for very mediocre achievements not because they can’t, but because they were convinced by one failure that they can’t. So they really only function at certain percentage of their capacity, and they are not even aware. They think that this is their capacity, but in fact they are capable of much more.

Can you please talk about the major emotional first aid techniques?

Dr Winch talks at Google conference.
Dr Winch talks at Google conference.

The first thing that has to be done is that you need to recognise that you’ve been wounded, and admit to yourself – Ok, I have a wound here, and I have been feeling down and something is really bothering me, and I am not able to shake it off and it needs treatment. For example, with failure, one of the best things you can do is to focus on what aspects are in your control; this is because failure makes you feel helpless, makes you feel hopeless, and it makes you feel demoralized, and it also makes you feel like giving up. You can think about how you would approach this task, if you have to do it again, and what you can control about those variables and what you can change – you can change your operations, or you can change your efforts. Think about what were the hurdles, and how can I get around each one of them and to tackle this again. Then you can start to feel much less hopeless, and you will feel more empowered, and you will feel motivated.

With rejection, a quick example; one of the things that happen is that we become very self-critical after being rejected, and our self-esteem is already wounded. So one of the first things you need to do after rejection is to revive your self-esteem. If it’s a romantic rejection, instead of thinking through all the ways in which we might have been inadequate – because we are not this enough, or that enough, or because we were too much of this, or too much of that – we need to think about what we actually did bring to the table, and all the ways in which somebody would appreciate us as a perspective romantic partner because we had all these things to offer. So it is really important to focus on our strengths after a rejection.Those are just two quick examples of techniques that I talk about in the book.

How strong is the link between emotional and physical health?
There are very strong ties between emotional and physical health. In my book I talk a lot about certain injuries and the overlap between them. Loneliness in an example. When we feel lonely our body pretty much feels like we are under assault. So the minute we start feeling lonely , we start to feel very stressed, our immune system begins to get depressed and functions less effectively. When we are alone all the time that level of stress can increase our risk dramatically for cardio-vascular disease, because of all the stress hormones that are going on. Because our immune system is suppressed we are at greater risk of all kinds of illnesses, which is why people tend to get sick much more often. The science of it finds that when somebody has chronic loneliness it puts them, over time, at much significant risk for their health than cigarettes smoking.

Another example is rumination and brooding; we brood at something upsetting, we tend to have that habit of brooding about stressful events in our lives, and we stress our bodies out. People who brood have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and are at a much higher risk of substance abuse.

There is a very strong link between emotional and physical health. People tend to think that when you are having psychical problem you’re going to get depressed and it’s going to impact your emotional health, but we have to realise that the link is even stronger the other way around – that emotional distress is going to cause physical problems.

Depression is on the rise on a global scale. What is your explanation to that?
I think that is because the world has become more complex, and we just don’t have the dialog about emotional health. We are starting to build tension to it. 150 years ago or in the middle ages there wouldn’t be a discussion about depression, because life was depressing fundamentally, life was so difficult and so challenging. Whereas today we have higher expectation to not be depressed – of not just surviving, but thriving. We have the expectation of being happy, and being satisfied, and so. With that expectation we are much more aware to when we are not, and hence prone to depression. So, I think that we are just paying more attention to it and expecting to be in a much more different way that hundred or even fifty years ago in many ways.

But the other thing is that we don’t have a dialogue about it – it’s a taboo, it’s stigmatised to talk about being depressed, it makes you come across as being weak, as not managing, as being damaged in some way. If you spoke about having the flu one wouldn’t consider you damaged because if it. If you talk about having diabetes, nobody considers you less competent or less worthy of company. But people are very judgemental about depression; our assumption is that we need to snap out of it, ignore it, to be strong. We have a fundamental misinterpretation of what depression is, and a fundamental distortion of what emotional health is, and what emotional strength is, which makes a dialogue around emotional health and depression very difficult to have.

Can one adopt an emotional hygiene habit at a more advanced stage of life?
You can adopt habits. Period. At any stage in life. In one study researchers went to an old aged people’s home and they saw that they were having a lot of health problems because they were very inactive, and they were very inactive because they had the assumption that when you are old that you are kind of inactive. So they decided to show them how to walk again – a forth of a kilometre a day, and then increased it, and slowly begin to go for walks with the old people for several kilometres a day. In the end, their health really improved, their mood changed, and they all started to develop the habit more naturally.

Habits don’t have a time limit – you can adopt new habits at any point in life, and more certainly when it comes to emotional hygiene, when it comes to prioritising, noticing, and taking care of emotional health. And we should, because we can gain great advantage of it at all ages in life, and you can always increase your happiness. You can always improve your emotional health. You can always be more productive, and not be somebody who believes that when you get older you stop being productive. Senior people would be very productive, except if they are expected to sit back and wait for death. So if you start adopting a more positive outlook and better emotional hygiene, then you start to pay attention to emotional wounds, and you’ll start to realise that you can thrive and get productive and be happy, and you can get much more out of life throughout all the years you live. No matter what your physical condition you can still emotionally and cognitively function on a higher level. People who are emotionally healthy decline much less cognitively – they remain sharper for much longer, their brains function longer and much better – which is a very important thing at all stages of life, but especially when you’re older.

Do you have an explanation of why some people are more prone to engaging in maladaptive strategies than others?
Certain people have certain mindset which tends to be negative – part of this might be a genetic component, part could be a socialised component – but some people tend to focus more on negativities. There are pessimists and optimists – think of it that way. We know, for example, with experiments with depression, that when people fail at something and start to get demoralised, that 20% won’t get demoralised, no matter how many times they fail, they will just keep trying. That is just 20% of people. The majority of people are prone to getting demoralised; they are prone to think negatively. And then it becomes a very self-reinforcing cycle. If you start to perceive the world negatively, if your mindset is negative, if you are focused on all the opportunities you don’t have, and why the world isn’t fair, then you start to have a ‘confirmation bias’. What that does is it makes us pay attention to things that confirm our expectations. So, if the expectation is unfair, and ‘I will never succeed’, we will start to pay much more attention to all the episodes in which we don’t, and will start to neglect and marginalise the instances when we are successful.

I like to give this as an example: in the Miss Universe Pageant, the winner is perceived as the winner and the runner-up as the one who failed. But the runner-up was second out of the whole world, which is hardly a failure. So how you perceive that – whether you perceive the runner-up of Miss Universe as failure or as an incredible success – makes an absolute difference in terms of how you perceive things, and it’s going to make a big difference in terms of how you cope. You know, if you are the only survivor of a terrible train crash but got very badly injured, are you very unlucky for being injured or are you very lucky for surviving when no one else did? It’s about your coping strategies, it’s about your perspective, and it’s about what spin you put on it. And even when your natural tendency is to put a negative spin on something, my feeling is you would get much more out of life if you to turn it around and put a positive spin on it. Some people tell me ‘but you can’t just ignore the negative in life’, and my response is – actually, what you are doing is ignoring the positive. I am saying: emphasise the positive, don’t ignore the negative.


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