The value of emotional first aid

emotional first aid

If you cut yourself, what would you do?

You probably won’t choose to walk around bleeding. At some point in your life, you’ve been taught to put a Band-Aid on a cut to protect it. You might clean the wound or put ointment on it, to avoid infection and speed up the heeling.

If the cut is especially deep, you’ll know you’re out of your depth. You’d possibly consult a medical professional, or the wound could cause permanent damage.

Most of us know how to respond to everyday physical ailments. But how many of us are taught how to care for everyday emotional bumps and bruises – like failure or rejection?

The truth is, emotional wounds are as debilitating – if not more so – than physical ones. But the impact of emotional pain – like rejection, failure, heartbreak, anxiety and depression – is not really taught to us in any formal way. The result is, more people have tools to deal with their physical aches and pains than they do to deal with their emotional ones.

We’re not given school subjects in how to deal with life’s up and downs. We don’t get classes on how to pick ourselves up after a rejection or failure. We’re not trained in how to deal with the tricks our minds can play on us when we’re depressed or anxious. We know what sick days are – but mental health days have only just started to be taken seriously.

We’ll expect weeks to recover from a broken leg. But what about a broken heart, a painful experience or a deep-felt failure?

Your mind is as medically complex as your body. Yet for some reason, we don’t prioritise emotional health in the same way as physical health.

This is where I’m trying to learn the value of emotional first aid.

First responder

Emotional first aid is about knowing how you’re feeling, the ways you tend to respond emotionally, and how to deal with those in a way that helps you heal.

I heard a talk recently by Guy Winch, who talks at length about emotional first aid in his work. He comments:

We sustain emotional traumas, like rejection or failure, even more regularly than we do physical ones. 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.

Like any kind of first aid, emotional first aid isn’t just for major life events. Some cuts seem minor, but can have a strong effect on us.

Loneliness is a common experience, but has been said to have a similar debilitating effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Most of all, it impedes your ability to create meaningful relationships.

Rejection can make our self-esteem wither and our self-talk turn dark, as in “You’re so stupid”, “You’re unlovable” or “You’re a failure”.

Ruminating on negative thoughts can make you lose perspective on what the real situation is and never get objective advice.

When we don’t recognise these patterns as destructive – or we don’t know how to counter them – we can end up injuring ourselves further. We can keep opening old wounds instead of letting them heal. Or we can end up with emotional hang-ups that we can’t seem to get past.

My emotional first aid could involve all kinds of things.

  • Avoiding ruminating. Instead of spending long times in my own head, I can try to break it up with positive activity (like creativity, social time, exercise) or talking to a friend to get a less subjective opinion.
  • Labelling my feelings. Instead of saying, “I am stressed”, I can try to think of why. If I can identify why I’m feeling the way I am, I can focus on problem-solving instead of feeling overwhelmed.
  • Writing it out.
  • Recognising that, like most humans, I tend to have a bias toward remembering negative thoughts.
  • Talking to a therapist.
  • Trying to note the things that I can be grateful for. I can’t pretend nothing is wrong. But I can recognise that not everything is wrong.

Maybe it sounds silly. And I’m still learning what works for me. But as time progresses, it’s my goal to get better at doing this for myself. Because the truth is, no one can do this first aid for me, except me.

Learning strategies

In my early twenties, I realised I was walking around on the emotional equivalent of a broken leg.

It was no one’s fault. I simply didn’t know how to tend to that particular emotional wound except by soldiering on. And some of my other emotional scars I didn’t even know were there.

It’s not a judgement on myself. My emotional bruises are different to other people’s, and they may require different levels of attention.

Some of my emotional wounds have needed the counsel of family and friends.

Some of them I’ve addressed with a therapist. Much like going to a medical doctor, this is a chance for me to understand myself better with someone who’s trained.

Some of them have simply required me to know myself better, to care for myself and give myself the rest I need.

I am still grappling with lots of this, and I am no expert. But I’ve learned some golden lessons along the way.

I know that emotional wounds take time to heal. I can’t expect to run if I can’t walk, and it may take me some time to recover. That’s okay.

I know that I might need time out. Much like the flu can knock me around, I might need time out after a draining week at work or a falling-out with a friend.

I know that some wounds are chronic – and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. If you have a bad back, you don’t run out and play football when it’s feeling tender. If I have an emotional soft spot, I might be more careful about some actions that other people can take quite easily. I can’t control my pains, but I can respond to them.

I am continually trying to understand what emotional health looks like for me, and to go after it with courage. Am I sharing how I’m feeling with others? Do I analyse my responses? Have I noticed any patterns that I need objective advice on? Ignoring these doesn’t make them go away.

And I’ve learned that healing often comes with the help of others. Leaning on my family and friends can help me recover faster.

Being healthy isn’t just an outside thing. It’s inside as well.