It’s never too early to start teaching kids how to take care of their hygiene – right? “Wash your hands,” “Brush your teeth,” “Bathe your body”: these instructions are routinely repeated to us by caregivers, teachers, and health professionals pretty much daily from the time we are only a couple of years old.
As a result of this early guidance, we intuitively understand how important it is to look after our physical health. Yet, as adults we realize that our overall well-being does not only consist of our physical condition; it depends on our psychological state, too.
Similarly, we were taught not to ignore physical pain or illness. For example, if we cut ourselves, we were shown how to clean and cover it with a band-aid. After all, not protecting the wound could result in an infection. Also, for instance, if we twisted our ankle, the advice would be not to continue walking on it, because we’d likely just end up injuring it further.
Growing up, we become aware of the fact that we often feel unwell due to a psychological disturbance or distress – perhaps even more often than we feel unwell physically.
And yet, many of us don’t really know what to do when that happens. Neither are we capable of treating emotional wounds, nor have we formed the necessary habits to prevent emotional disbalances.
The neglect and disinterest of emotional hygiene habits in our society is concerning. And it can be especially harmful for those of us who struggle with insecure attachment and are thus prone to facing emotional challenges on multiple levels of their lives.
To raise awareness and attention to this matter, in this page we will go over:
“Emotional pain should not and need not be a constant companion. Do not let it become one.”― Guy Winch
Emotional hygiene is a personal practice that aims to prevent mental health disorders and treat mild injuries to our emotional state. You could think of it as an equivalent to physical hygiene – the personal practice aimed at preventing disease and treating minor injuries that do not require special medical attention.
Similarly to how a cut on our skin needs to be cleaned and protected in order to not cause an infection, a cut to our “emotional skin” needs some treatment too. Not giving the emotional injury the necessary attention can cause initially mild cuts to fester – eventually becoming infected and damaging to our day-to-day quality of life.
Therefore, understanding how to apply emotional first aid to psychological injuries could help prevent further negative impacts on overall well-being. Moreover, doing so could even alleviate conditions such as depression or anxiety, and improve quality of life.
Guy Winch, Clinical Psychologist, author of Emotional First Aid, and the captivating TED X talk “Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid,” hits the nail on the head: “The reason we take little to no purposeful action to treat the psychological wounds we sustain in daily life is because we lack the tools with which to manage such experiences.”
Essentially, we were taught from an early age that our physical health is more important than our mental health.
Our bodies are “favored” over our minds because without good physical health we risk illness or even death. So, essentially, we never formed effective ways of handling our emotional pain.
Yet, the effects of poor emotional hygiene aren’t too dissimilar from those of poor physical hygiene. Because we lack the proper tools or understanding, we often neglect our mental health or emotional wounds to the extent that they become serious enough to harm our daily functioning.
We all experience emotional hurt throughout life. Yet, people with insecure attachment have struggled with psychological instability and distress since early childhood. They exhibit their first emotional wound in their inability to form a secure bond with their caregivers.
From that moment on, insecure attachers are prone to emotional distress. That is especially true in social settings, where their attachment is easily triggered. There are a number of emotional wounds relevant in this context.
Today, we will focus on the 5 central themes that insecure attachment revolves around:
Ah, rejection. The emotional injury that is essentially most unavoidable in life. Whether it’s a child not being picked for the school sports team, to an adult not getting the job they want, or being turned down on a dating app. Rejection is part and parcel of life. Regardless, this fact doesn’t mean that rejection hurts any less. In fact, scans have shown that rejection triggers the same areas of the brain as physical pain.
The reason why rejection stings our psyche so badly is because we are inherently social creatures.
The basics of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory explain it quite well, as it focuses on our need for connection with our primary caregiver in our formative years as a means of survival. So, even as adults, feeling socially rejected triggers a sharp psychological pain. However, for some of us, the pain of rejection hurts more than for others.
Insecure attachers come from a childhood where they perceived that their needs were repeatedly rejected by their caregivers.
Therefore, someone with an insecure attachment style typically creates strategies that prevent them from feeling further rejected in adulthood. It could be the boundaries that someone high on attachment avoidance puts in place to prevent rejection. Or it could be the often clingy behaviors in relationships that those high on attachment anxiety enact to avoid abandonment. Regardless, these strategies often become self-sabotaging actions, which increase the chances of feeling rejected.
In addition to actual physical pain, rejection can lead to aggressive outbursts and low self-esteem. It’s best to target the sting of rejection when we first feel it rather than leave it festering and creating further hurt.
Painful, disappointing, or uncomfortable experiences are often inevitable factors of day-to-day life. Yet, our attachment styles often determine how we react to these events.
Most of us will reflect on a negative event. We would go over its components in the hopes of achieving insights into why it happened. It’s natural to do so as it often allows us to understand, alleviate, and eventually move on from upset. Essentially, this form of reflection is a healthy way of processing pain or disappointment.
However, research has shown that insecure attachers are prone to maladaptive rumination.
Rumination essentially means to “chew over” our thoughts repeatedly. These thoughts tend to be sad or dark and can intensify depressive feelings as well as impair daily functioning. The reason for this impairment is that rumination doesn’t help us to understand why an event happened. Instead, it causes us to repeatedly experience the associated distress.
Therefore, it’s important to break the cycle of rumination and apply emotional first aid to prevent the potentially intense psychological impact on our lives.
If you would like more information on emotion regulation and attachment, check out our introductory guide.
Our levels of self-esteem can mitigate the impact of negative life events in our day-to-day lives. Those of us with healthy self-esteem will still sometimes experience disappointment and knocks to our ego. Still, we would then be more likely to process the event healthily and move on with our lives without too much difficulty.
However, those of us with low self-esteem may be more vulnerable to the harfmful impact of negative events.
As Guy Winch put it,“Having low self-esteem is akin to having a weak immune system: It renders us more vulnerable to many of the psychological injuries we sustain in daily life.”
For this reason, people with low self-esteem typically have lower moods. They are often more pessimistic in their outlook and less motivated than those with healthy self-esteem.
Research has demonstrated that insecure attachment styles – especially the anxious and disorganized styles – link to outlooks on life that predispose those with them to lower levels of self-esteem. These lower levels of self-esteem directly relate to prolonged psychological stress, anxiety, and depression.
When attempting to administer emotional first aid for low self-esteem, consistency, time, and effort are essential. This is because our outlook on ourselves and how we fit into our world was fostered at such a young age. These patterns of thinking are thus well entrenched.
We may not be able to change our self-esteem overnight, but we can promote balanced, more stable attitudes towards ourselves over time.
The experience of loneliness differs from person to person. Because loneliness has many possible causes, we don’t really know what exactly it is about certain experiences that creates feelings of isolation. In fact, many people can be physically close to others but still feel like they’re not connecting in a way that fulfills their social needs.
Inherently, we are social creatures, so we tend to exhibit strong negative emotional and physical reactions if we feel disconnected from others.
Seeing as insecure attachment styles can inhibit how we connect emotionally to others, insecurely attached people are likely more prone to feelings of intense loneliness.
For example, people high on attachment anxiety are prone to feelings of loneliness when actually involved in romantic relationships – and even more so if the relationship ends.
In contrast, avoidant attachers are highly independent, so they may not be as emotionally dependent on their partners. Yet, their avoidant behaviors can make it difficult to forge meaningful or long-lasting relationships. As a result, some avoidant attachers may feel disconnected from the social world.
Also, aside from the physical and emotional effects of loneliness, it has a further profound impact on how we view ourselves and other people. Feeling isolated leads us to view our current relationships negatively, and can also result in us becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meaning that we act in self-defeating ways which damage our relationships even further.
For these reasons, treating the emotional wounds that loneliness creates – as well as targeting its associated self-defeating behaviors – can reduce the negative effect of social isolation on our lives.
In more extreme cases, some insecure attachers – such as disorganized attachers – may have experienced traumatic events in their formative years. What’s more, the effects of this trauma often impact an insecure attacher’s ability to connect with the important people in their adult relationships.
In some ways, this effect is due to the fact that trauma creates an early template that guides how we view relationships, our identities, and the narrative of our lives. This template structures how we make sense of the world. As a result, an insecure attacher may often feel like they’re not worthy of love and see others as untrustworthy. What’s more, their outward behaviors in the different areas of their lives reflect these feelings.
In our second article of this Emotional Hygiene series, we share emotional first aid exercises that may help you address certain aspects of your trauma – especially if you experience new events which retrigger your feelings of past trauma. However, it’s important to remember that if your feelings are too intense, then it’s best to refer to our guide on finding a mental health professional that suits your needs.
Emotional hygiene, just like physical hygiene, is a necessary and important part of our daily lives. Although highly neglected in modern societies, the practice of emotional hygiene should be taught at a young age and taken seriously throughout our entire lives.
This is especially true for insecure attachers, as they might be more prone to emotional triggers in social situations. Furthermore, insecure attachers are more likely to exhibit personal struggles such as low self-esteem, self-doubt, negative self-talk, pessimism, and self-sabotage.
As a result, those of us who score high on attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance might experience emotional injuries more often and more intensely, as compared to secure attachers. They should, therefore, prioritize the practice of emotional hygiene as a central part of their self-care routine.
Bowlby, J.(1982). Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books.
Winch, G. (2014). Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. Plume Books.
Lanciano, T., Curci, A., Kafetsio, K., Elia, L. & Zammuner, L. (2012). Attachment and dysfunctional rumination: The mediating role of Emotional Intelligence abilities. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(6), 753-758.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (20). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Publications.
Roberts, E., Gotlib, H., & Kassel, J. (1996). Adult attachment security and symptoms of depression: The mediating roles of dysfunctional attitudes and low self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(2), 310–320.