Can Practicing Emotional Hygiene Make a Difference? Yes, and Here’s How
Think of all the different ways you care for your body. You brush your teeth twice a day, put on sunscreen to protect your skin, wash your hands to avoid getting sick, and maybe take a multivitamin to supplement your diet.
Your body is not the only component in your overall wellness, though—there’s also your mind to consider. Since few of us are taught to practice daily care of our mental health, you may need to experiment to figure out what helps you feel your best. In the long run, being proactive about your emotional well-being can pay huge dividends.
Below we’ll discuss how you can practice emotional hygiene to tend to an emotional wound, recover from deeper hurt, or do maintenance activities that will help you build up strong emotional health and resilience.
Putting Together Your Emotional First Aid Kit
Just as personal hygiene is necessary to physical health, emotional hygiene is equally important to psychological health. And when something causes us anxiety or distress, there are steps we can take to practice emotional first aid—much like how we would put an antibiotic ointment and a band-aid over a cut.
In his TED talk, psychologist Guy Winch discusses the importance of treating psychological wounds caused by things like rejection, loneliness, and failure with emotional first aid. Some of his key tactics are to:
- Acknowledge emotional pain. Recognize negative feelings when they arise (without judgment). Pay extra attention if, after a reasonable amount of time passes, those feelings stay the same or get worse. That can be a sign they need more intensive treatment.
- Battle negative thinking. Even a two-minute distraction can be effective in breaking free from repetitive, self-defeating thoughts. Anything that requires your focus, like doing a crossword puzzle or trying to recall the names of your grade school teachers, can help.
- Protect and boost your self-esteem. Self-esteem is like the immune system of the mind, and keeping it strong lets you bounce back more easily from psychological wounds. During times when your self-esteem has taken a hit, be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion to restore it.
It may seem at first that treating psychological pain is not as straightforward as treating physical pain. However, like with anything, it gets easier with practice.
Needing More Intensive Care
Emotional hygiene can be likened to maintenance (just like brushing and flossing daily maintains your dental health). On the other hand, sometimes a situation is more serious, beyond the scope of treating more commonplace psychological wounds with tools in our emotional first aid kit. These include:
- Mental illness. Think about this: if you had a broken bone, you wouldn’t be expected to take care of it by yourself, right? You’d rely on doctors, medical equipment, and medication to treat any injury or illness that requires a more intensive level of care than what home remedies or over-the-counter medicine can provide. Likewise, the importance of having a healthcare team that includes a psychiatrist and/or therapist can’t be overstated in treating mental illness.
- Suicidal thoughts. While not all thoughts of suicide are considered high-risk by mental health professionals, if someone has the intention to act on their thoughts, has made a plan, and has access to lethal means, it’s an emergency situation that requires immediate attentioni. A set of six risk-assessment questions developed by psychiatrists at Columbia University can help with assessing risk level. And creating a safety plan during times when there isn’t immediate risk can help ward off a future crisis.
Depending on your circumstance, though, maybe you’re not sure whether you need additional support or not. First, know that you don’t need to wait for things to worsen in order to get outside help—people seek out therapy for any number of reasons besides having mental health symptoms that become unmanageable. If you’re not able to go to therapy right away, or are looking to get extra support between sessions, there are also evidence-based apps (particularly apps for depression) that may be helpful.
Emotional Hygiene as Integral to Self-Care
Consider emotional hygiene as a part of holistic self-care. Moreover, maintaining your emotional well-being reinforces your physical well-being, and vice versa. One positive action has ripple effects: for example, getting a good night’s sleep makes it easier to regulate both your appetite and your mood. We’ve mentioned a few concrete actions you can take already, but here are some more ideas:
- Caring for your physical well-being
- Caring for your emotional well-being
- Practice positive habits (for example: maintaining a clean space, sticking to a morning routine, limiting mindless use of electronics, or keeping a gratitude journal).
- Make time for important relationships.
- Meditate or do breathwork to invite calm and focus.
- Establish and maintain healthy boundaries for yourself.
- Nurture your self-esteem and practice self-compassion.
It’s also important to take initiative in improving your well-being by actively steering yourself toward fulfillment. That can mean anything from making time for hobbies or a dream project like learning a language, volunteering, doing a thorough assessment of your finances, or investing in career development.
Staying open-minded and experimenting with different tactics (for example, do you prefer writing in a journal or taking a walk as an outlet? Are you more likely to stick to a morning or evening exercise routine?) can help you find what works best for you.
Ultimately, centering your mental health and incorporating emotional hygiene into your daily life can lead to incredibly positive outcomes. Dr. Winch puts it this way:
“By changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won’t just heal your psychological wounds, you will build emotional resilience, you will thrive. A hundred years ago, people began practicing personal hygiene, and life expectancy rates rose by over 50 percent in just a matter of decades. I believe our quality of life could rise just as dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene.”
Keep in mind that it takes time to solidify any new habit, so go slow and be sure to set realistic goals for yourself. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your optimal self-care practice be. But at the end, you’ll have built something to be proud of—a carefully cultivated set of values and habits that will help you be your best self.