Emotional First Aid

My friend and fellow blogger, Tara Mae, shared this Ted Talk on her blog the other day.

Dr. Winch makes the point that we value the health of the body much more than we value the health of the mind. I see it when friends run to a medical doctor for every little tiny illness or wound but when they have wounds from grief, abuse or just stress from everyday life, they wait until they are in dire straits before they ask for help. In fact, they often ignore that those conditions even exist. The fact is that some of the most dangerous and deadly illnesses we have are those of the mind. Suicide – a symptom of depression, other mental illnesses or addiction – has surpassed traffic fatalities as the leading cause of death in this country. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. Winch says that loneliness is as dangerous to health as cigarette smoking. Why do we try to treat alcohol abuse, loneliness and depression as conditions that we can just ‘get over’ by refocusing our mind?

Winch points out that we often tell someone who is in emotional pain to ‘just shake it off. It’s all in your mind.” He asks if we would ever tell someone with a broken leg to ‘just walk it off. It’s all in your leg.” For some reason, we place more of a priority on healing the body than healing the mind. The other day I spoke with a friend of mine about some issues I was processing. I was sad, and I cried. Right before we hung up, he said, “Smile. There are people who have a lot worse problems than you.” I felt like he had slapped me in the face. I wasn’t asking for anything, I was merely talking about my feelings. Can you imagine if we would tell someone with a broken leg to “smile. There are people with a lot more health problems than you.”? It may be true, but just because other people have worse bodily injuries, we don’t tell them not to get treatment or have empathy for their situation.

Over the years my circle of friends has grown to include more people who understand the trauma associated with emotional wounds than those who don’t. We talk about triggers and feelings without shame and without needing to fix each other or make them feel better. It was a learning process for me, because I didn’t know what to say when someone was wounded or triggered. I wanted them to feel better, too. But I knew I could no longer offer platitudes designed to minimize or distract them from emotional pain. I wanted to offer healing in whatever way I could. So, I found a phrase that helps me convey what I know I need when I am triggered or hurting. I urge my friends to ‘be gentle with yourself.’ This is the direct opposite of sucking it up and getting over it. It is the same advice I’d offer to someone physically sick. Be gentle with yourself .. get some rest .. take care of yourself… don’t push yourself too much right now.

I love Winch’s example of the woman who got rejected on the date and the response her “best friend” gave her. We are our best friends, and I know I often beat myself up rather than offer myself gentleness and compassion. The day my friend told me to smile and remember that my problems were minimal in comparison with other’s issues, I felt like he was saying that I was selfish and self-centered on top of the emotional pain I was already feeling. I was already beating myself up for some bad decisions and not handling things well. I forget that when I have been hurt emotionally, I can’t process information well. I’m like a runner who has a hurt knee. The injury impacts everything, and trying to run on it will not help even if I take painkillers and don’t feel it. Overcompensating for the injury will just lead to other issues. So, any incoming information when I’m in emotional pain does not get filtered as it would be if I was feeling my best. On my best days, I could accept that they don’t know what to say, so that’s all that’s in their tookit. It’s on them. But, when I’m already beating myself up and limping emotionally, I take it as a failure of my own. I don’t want to do that to other people.

I had a rough day today. It wasn’t the whole day, but at one point I felt like I was emotionally limping. I became edgy, and I start beating myself up for the situation I was in. Initially, my mind starting going over the big mistake I thought I’d made in coming here. I started outlining my failures and what I should have done. I told myself that I was stupid, and I was never going to get out of this situation. Then, I remembered this video and my reaction to Winch’s message. “Be gentle with yourself, Sharon,” I told myself quietly. “You are not in a good place right now emotionally, and beating yourself up further won’t help.” I felt better immediately. I practiced emotional first aid. Thank you, Dr. Winch.

8 thoughts on “Emotional First Aid

    • I agree. It’s helped me to have something ready in my mind to say in any situation. I want them not to be hurting, and it’s easy to let something slip that may not be helpful. I can’t go wrong with that one. Although I do find that people who are really hard on themselves sometimes cringe when I say that.

  1. It’s funny to read this after yesterday’s conversation with my daughter. She had forgotten something important and was calling herself a nasty name – I immediately texted back “be KIND to my daughter!!” I hope it was helpful to her, because she just did not need to be beat up on any further!

    But I also am one of those people who puts off seeking help for emotional issues. I’ll get stuck in a bad place and think to myself that I should find a professional to talk to, and then things seem to get better in a few days. In the back of my mind, I know it would be wise to establish a relationship with a therapist BEFORE it gets bad enough that the pain doesn’t go away by itself.

    • Look how smart you are! I hope you do establish something when times are good. And it doesn’t have to be professional help, it could be a support group. It has been so valuable for me to get in the habit of calling my support group when I’m doing well. When I’m in a tight spot, it’s so much easier to call. I love that you said that to your daughter. Great job!

      • Well I’m codependent. alanon was a perfect fit. It depends on your issues or struggles. Churches and 12-step groups usually cover a large territory. Email me privately if you need some help finding your niche.

      • Alanon is an interesting idea – I haven’t been to an Alanon meeting in 25 years. I remember not fitting in well because most of the women were middle-aged – I’d probably fit in just fine now!! Thanks for the suggestions, Sharon.

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