Practice Emotional Hygiene

We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right? We’ve known it since we were five years old.

But what do we know about maintaining our emotional health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing.

How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds? Why is our physical health so much more important to us than our emotional health?

We sustain emotional injuries way more often than we do physical ones. Injuries like failure or rejection, or loneliness, and they can also get worse if we ignore them. And they can impact our lives in dramatic ways.

And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of emotional injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. “Oh, you’re feeling depressed, just shake it off, it’s all in your head.”

Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg, “Just walk it off, it’s all in your leg.”

It is time we close the gap between our physical health and our emotional health. We need to learn to pay attention to our emotional pains. Let’s take a look at two common pains, loneliness and failure.

Loneliness

Loneliness creates a deep emotional wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe those around us care much less than they actually do. It makes us really afraid to reach out, because why set ourselves up for rejection and heartache when our heart is already aching more than we can stand?

Loneliness is defined subjectively. It depends solely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you.

There’s a lot of research on loneliness and all of it is horrifying. Loneliness won’t just make you miserable, it will kill you.

Chronic loneliness increases your likelihood of early death by 14 percent. Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, it even suppresses the functioning of your immune system, making you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases.

In fact, scientists have concluded that taken together, chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk for your long-term health and longevity as cigarette smoking. Cigarette packs come with warnings saying, “This could kill you.” But loneliness doesn’t.

And that’s why it’s so important we prioritize our emotional health. That we practice emotional hygiene. Because you can’t treat an emotional wound if you don’t even know you are injured.

Failure

Loneliness isn’t the only emotional wound that distorts our perceptions and misleads us. Failure does that as well.

We all have a default set of feelings and beliefs that gets triggered whenever we encounter frustrations and setbacks.

Are you aware of how your mind reacts to failure? You need to be. Because if your mind tries to convince you you’re incapable of something and you believe it, then like those two toddlers, you’ll begin to feel helpless, and you’ll stop trying too soon or you won’t even try at all. And then you will be even more convinced you can’t succeed.

Once we become convinced of something, it’s very difficult to change our minds. Our minds are hard to change once we become convinced.

It might be very natural to feel demoralized and defeated after you fail. But you cannot allow yourself to become convinced you can’t succeed. You have to fight feelings of helplessness.

You have to gain control over the situation, and you have to break this kind of negative cycle before it begins.

Stop the emotional bleeding

Our minds and our feelings are not the trustworthy friends we thought they were. They are more like a really moody friend, who can be totally supportive one minute, and really unpleasant the next.

We start thinking of all our faults and all our shortcomings: what we wish we were, what we wish we weren’t, we call ourselves names. Maybe not harshly, but we all do it. It’s interesting that we do, because our self-esteem is already hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further?

We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose. You wouldn’t get a cut on your arm and decide, “Oh, I know, I am going to take a knife and see how much deeper I can make it.”

But we do that with emotional injuries all the time. Why? Because of poor emotional hygiene.

Because we don’t prioritize our emotional health. When you are in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion you would expect from a truly good friend.

Spending so much time focused on upsetting and negative thoughts, actually puts us at significant risk for developing clinical depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and even cardiovascular disease.

Our quality of life could rise dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene.

Use emotional intelligence to create emotional hygiene

Emotional intelligence is different from general or common intelligence. It’s the ability of an individual to monitor their own emotions, to monitor the emotions of others, to understand the differences between them, and to use all of this information in order to guide their actions. These skills are about accurately understanding the emotions of oneself and others, as well as expressing emotions in a way that’s accessible.

  1. Notice and understand our own emotions
  2. Noticing and understanding the emotions of others
  3. Effectively regulating emotions
  4. Using emotions to facilitate performance

We can learn to identify and understand all our feelings and then respond in helpful, proportionate ways — when we improve our emotional intelligence.  Read more about these emotional intelligence skills.

Research shows emotional health improves with gratitude

Gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression. Gratitude reduces a multitude of unpleasant emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.

Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased self-esteem, which is an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs – which is a major factor in reduced self-esteem – grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.

The point of gratitude practice is to help you better manage any hardships you are dealing with. Further, practicing gratitude allows us to stop and reflect on the good times instead of passing off our hardships as not important. Read more about the value of gratitude in enhancing your emotional health.

Try writing down what you are grateful for every day for a week. I do this first thing in the morning as an emotional “step-up” to my day. Enjoy it and know that you are making a choice to be grateful — a choice that is increasing your inner strength and your overall emotional health.

This post is based on a TedX talk by Guy Winch in December 2014.

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Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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