Wednesday, 11 March 2015

From personal to emotional hygiene

We know a lot about maintaining our physical health, but not much about maintaining our mental health. We suffer psychological injuries (such as failure) so much more often than physical injuries and they can impact our lives dramatically, yet we do not treat them and it does not even occur to us that we should do something about it.

This is how psychologist Guy Winch starts his TED Talk on emotional hygiene. What is emotional hygiene? It is maintaining our mental health, just as we maintain our physical health by personal hygiene.


In his talk, he looks at several psychological wounds that can be prevented or healed using emotional hygiene: loneliness, failure, rejection, and rumination.

Loneliness refers to feeling emotionally and socially disconnected from others. It does not only make people feel miserable. It also causes high blood pressure and high cholesterol, it impairs the immune system, and ultimately it increases the risk of death by 15 percent, thus presenting a risk for health and longevity as high as cigarette smoking.

Failure in itself is not so much a problem, but how individuals respond to it may be: It leads some people to believe that they are incapable of doing something, which in turn impacts their confidence for future tasks. When humans are convinced of something then it is very hard to change their mind, thus low confidence levels will negatively impact achievement.

Similar to failure, rejection by others in itself is not an issue, but the response to it. Often people start thinking of their faults and shortcomings when being rejected, thus lowering their self-esteem. With low self-esteem individuals are very vulnerable to stress and to anxiety. In such a state failure and rejections hurt more and it takes longer to recover from them. Thus, he recommends that after failure and rejection we should treat ourselves with the same compassion as we would expect a good friend to treat us.

Rumination refers to staying focused on upsetting experiences and reliving them over and over again. It puts people at risk of clinical depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, or cardiovascular disease. However, research shows that a two minute disruption is enough to break the cycle of ruminating. Thus, he points out that forcing ourselves to focus on something other than ruminating for just two minutes will disrupt the downward spiral.

He summarises that by practising emotional hygiene we will not only heal, but we will build emotional resilience and thrive. He concludes with an intriguing thought: 100 years people began practising personal hygiene and life expectancy went up dramatically. We could yield the same effect for quality of life by beginning to practise emotional hygiene.

What he reports is in line with a wide range of research. For example we know that positive emotions build resources and we reported on this in an earlier post. We also know that optimists are in better health than pessimists. Finally, we also reported on the fixed vs. growth mindset. People with the former mindset see failure as proof of their incapability, whereas individuals with the latter take it as a challenge. They are not there yet, but they are on a learning curve towards it. So just as we work out for our body every day or several times a week in order to stay physically healthy, we might consider doing our brain something good every day as well, for example by meditating – and as we reported earlier ten minutes a day might make a big difference.

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