Why Do We Take Better Care of Our Teeth Than Our Emotions?

Why do we treat psychologists, like they aren’t real doctors and mental illness like it isn’t real pain? Maybe having better emotional hygiene would lead us to better health in general.

In much the same way that dental hygiene involves brushing our teeth and flossing every day, and personal hygiene involves cleaning ourselves and taking care of physical injuries when we sustain them, emotional hygiene refers to being mindful of our psychological health and adopting brief daily habits to monitor and address psychological wounds when we sustain them.

Currently, our general neglect of our emotional hygiene is profound. How is it we spend more time each day taking care of our teeth than our minds? We brush and floss but what daily activity do we do to maintain our psychological health?

I would argue the consequences of lacking emotional hygiene are much worse that lacking dental hygiene—after all, which would you rather lose, a tooth or your mind?

Indeed, it seems that all our attention goes toward our physical health with none left over for our psychological health. How many habits have you adopted and changed over the years to better your physical health? All the constantly changing dietary practices and exercise regimes; self-exams for breast or testicular cancer; annual check-ups; physical therapies; and the many over-the-counter remedies we use for aches and pains.

Now ask yourself what habits you’ve adopted to better your psychological health: Do you monitor psychological injuries such as failure or rejection when you sustain them, to make sure your self-esteem recovers and rebounds? Are you aware of the ways negative self-talk impacts your emotional resilience? Do you know how to break out of a cycle of ruminating and brooding about distressing events? Chances are the answer to these questions is no.

To get you started, here are five tips for improving your emotional hygiene:

1. Pay Attention to Emotional Pain

If a physical ache or pain doesn’t get better in a few days, you probably take some kind of action. The same should be true of psychological pain. If you find yourself hurting emotionally for several days because of a rejection, a failure, a bad mood, or any other reason, it means you’ve sustained a psychological wound and you need totreat it with emotional-first-aid techniques. (You can learn more about them throughout the Squeaky Wheel blog.)

2. Stop Emotional Bleeding

Many psychological wounds launch vicious cycles that only make the pain worse. For example, failure can lead to a lack of confidence and feelings of helplessness that only make you more likely to fail again in the future. Having awareness of these consequences, catching these negative cycles, and stopping your emotional bleeding by correcting them is crucial in many such situations.

3. Protect Your Self-Esteem

Our self-esteem acts as an emotional immune system (learn more here) which can buffer us and lend us greater emotional resilience. Therefore, we should get in the habit of monitoring our self-esteem, boosting it when it is low, and avoiding negative self-talk of the kind that damages it further.

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4. Battle Negative Thinking

It is natural to think about distressing events, but when our thinking becomes repetitive we are no longer problem-solving, we are ruminating. Ruminating can be very costly to our psychological health, as well as to our physical health, and can put us at risk for clinical depression and even cardiovascular disease. (See “The 7 Hidden Dangers of Ruminating.”) We have to battle negative thinking and avoid falling into the habit of over-focusing on distressing events.

5. Become Informed About the Impact of Psychological Wounds

There is much more we need to learn about emotional hygiene and how to treat psychological wounds. Fortunately, much information is available in this blog as well as elsewhere on PsychologyToday.com. When you learn how to treat psychological wounds—and teach your children how to do so as well—you will not only build emotional resilience, you will thrive.

Guy Winch
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker and author. His book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014) has been translated into twenty languages, and his TED Talk Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid has been viewed over 2 million times. You can find links to additional articles and books on his website.

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