How to administer emotional first aid

David McCrae | 23rd September 2016

We have so many practices to look after our physical health – watching what we eat, exercising, medical check ups – but what do we do to maintain our psychological health? We wouldn’t dream of letting a cut fester or a broken bone remain untreated, yet we allow our negative thoughts and feelings to bubble away unattended to. This is the observation of Dr. Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, where he outlines a toolkit to administer to our seven most frequent negative emotions: rejection, loneliness, loss, guilt, rumination, failure and low self-esteem.

Work can be a stressful environment. Even for those of you reading this who aren’t working in a highly charged, results-driven environment – it can still have a negative impact in a number of different ways. At this point I would like to share my personal strategies to combat each of the seven emotional wounds highlighted by Guy:

1. Rejection

Rejection is a painful emotion. It hits at one of the primary components of the human condition; the need for connection. It is powerful enough to activate regions of the brain associated with physical pain. This link is so strong that research has found that giving people painkillers reduces their pain after they have been rejected!

Because this physiological and psychological link is so robust, I would recommend activating physical pleasure centres to ease the pain. This could include going for a massage, pet therapy (which has the bonus of emotional connection) or some outdoor activity that changes your physiological state- like canoeing or running.

2. Loneliness

Loneliness is another emotion that taps into our human need for connection. It is not just painful, In some cases it can even be life-threatening: loneliness has been found to be a stronger health risk factor than smoking! As such it is vital to address feelings of loneliness before they develop into a truly detrimental state.

One of the most effective remedies for loneliness is an amazing website called meetup.com. This site allows you to find groups that share your interests and hobbies, and there is a very diverse list. People on Meetup are primed to communicate as they too are seeking to meet people, and the website automatically narrows down the population to those who share like-minded values with you. This is a highly effective way to meet people and tackle your loneliness.

3. Loss

When we lose someone or something important to us, it can be a very challenging time. A breakup, death, or even being fired from a job inflicts three wounds: it threatens our self-perceptions, it challenges our fundamental beliefs and it makes it difficult for us to stay connected and engaged to life and relationships.
One of the ways I have overcome loss in my life is to try to find the gain in the pain. I write a list of how things have changed for me since that loss: new priorities, greater appreciation of relationships or enhanced determination and purpose. What I’ve found hugely helpful is setting goals based on these lessons. This may result in you experiencing what is known as “post-traumatic growth”– whereby your loss actually serves as an accelerator for your personal growth.

4. Guilt

Out of our negative emotions, guilt is one of our healthiest. Guilt actually helps us to maintain standards in relationships, restore connections with others, atone for inflicting pain and to learn from our mistakes. However, excessive guilt creates what is known as the “Dobby effect”. Harry Potter fans will know that Dobby always punished himself for the slightest misdemeanor, and that is what we do when we feel excessive guilt. It begins to seep into the rest of our lives and can make us feel guilty for pretty much everything; it is therefore vital to consciously separate guilt from other activities.

Of course the best strategy to overcome guilt is to apologise and atone, but sometimes that is not accepted, or we feel guilty for something more abstract. In these scenarios I suggest having a journal where you allow yourself to vent and process the guilt, and/or a place you can go to compartmentalise that guilt. Channel the guilt so that it doesn’t seep into other activities; you will only feel worse if your guilt influences other components of your life.

5. Rumination

Rumination describes how animals such as cows or sheep chew their food continuously, and we do the same with our thoughts. They go round and round in our heads and torment us. Maybe it’s an angry word from your boss in the morning. Perhaps it was a rude customer/client. Possibly you made a crucial mistake on a project.

It’s hard to ignore rumination, and unhealthy for us to attempt it. We need to reconstruct the rumination in order to be able to properly digest it. A useful technique is to take a third person perspective and ask why things happened, not how. Instead of replaying the same tape over and over in our brain, research has found that doing this results in new insights and more closure.

6. Failure

Failure is a very familiar demon in the workplace. We all make mistake, that’s what makes us human. Nonetheless these mistakes can cause serious psychological wounds. They can create guilt. They can cause you to question your self-concept. They can lead to you being rejected by others. These are all extreme examples, but even mild failure can send our mind in a spin if we don’t adopt the right mindset.

Failure usually comes from a lack of or deficiencies in strategy. Not that a strategy removes the risk of failure, but an effective strategy severely mitigates against it. We usually blame failure on our character shortcomings, which not only hammers our confidence and self-esteem, but usually prevents us from seeing and addressing the strategic problem. An effective way to utilise failure is to process it, analyse it and create new goals off the back of your findings. I use a goal-setting framework I call the S.S. Dope.

Specific: Hone in on exactly what you want. Don’t set vague or multi-layered goals.

Stretch: Devise incremental steps to get towards that goal. Make sure these steps are challenging (i.e. they stretch you) otherwise they won’t get you into optimal working focus.

Dates: Set a start date and a completion date for each incremental step. One of the ways you can stretch yourself is by giving yourself strict timeframes.

Obstacles: Here’s the key part of goal setting that people usually miss out. They don’t think of what will stop them achieving their goals, and this is where failure often hits home. Be brutal and honest with your plan and anticipate all the things that would scupper it.

Preparation: After appraising all the obstacles, you are now in a much better position to confront them. What steps can you take to avoid them, or what strategy can you implement in the event of a collision?

Exciting: I consider this to be the most important part of goal setting. You need a goal that fires you up. Something that is its own source of inspiration and motivation for you. A worthwhile goal that really stretches you will be incredibly tough, and there are going to be times when your motivation and inspiration are running low. If your goal doesn’t excite you and keep your passion burning even in the low times, then you probably aren’t going to achieve it.

7. Low Self-Esteem

Our self-esteem can take a hit in multiple ways in the workplace: If we feel our work isn’t good enough, or conversely if we feel it isn’t receiving the praise it deserves. If our relationships aren’t healthy. If we are negatively comparing ourselves to others. If we aren’t meeting self-imposed standards.

Low self-esteem generally comes from feeling that worth is lacking in a certain area. To bring that esteem up we need to find ways to affirm and confirm that we are wealthy. One way is to create a value statement listing all of the positive attributes you bring to your work, environment and relationships. Every morning pick three of these values and repeat to yourself self-affirmations based on these values. It is important that these things are actually true and a part of you (“I seek to bring joy to others”), not something that you want (“I will get more friends”). An affirmation is designed to prime your unconscious into expressing these virtues more fully in life, not to create wishful thinking and set yourself up for disappointment.

I hope that you now feel better-equipped to tackle each of these emotions next time they rear their ugly heads.

Is there is an issue you are struggling with right now? Try the appropriate remedy and observe the difference. If your negative state is at a chronic level, then please do seek professional and medical advice.

If you found these techniques useful, then Guy Winch outlines many more in his book: Emotional First Aid.


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