Book Review: Emotional First Aid


(image credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

“Emotional First Aid” by Guy Winch is a handbook of practical exercises for healing and recovering from mental and emotional injuries, and building better emotional resilience.

Winch is a clinical psychologist who has spent decades distilling the latest research into practical steps and exercises for his patients. He found himself repeating the same advice over and over. So he compiled it into a book.

The book covers seven of the most common emotional injuries that people experience in everyday life: rejection, loneliness, loss, guilt, rumination, failure, and low self esteem. Winch describes the issues, how they can affect us, and also provides a plan with steps to tackle each type of injury.

Each chapter is split into two parts: first describing the psychological wounds that each type of injury inflicts, especially symptoms or behaviour that may be hard to recognize. Then the second part outlines treatments and steps you can use to work at healing. Winch provides multiple different options and “dosage” guidelines – of various types and intensity – so it’s easy to use the techniques that work for you. He also provides advice on when to seek professional help.

Part of Winch’s motivation for writing this book was to raise awareness of emotional health, and give people a better “first line of defense” for handling and healing emotional injuries. His analogy is right in the title – just as we have a medicine cabinet and first aid kit for first-line dealing with physical injuries, we can also benefit from creating a basic toolkit for dealing with psychological or emotional injuries. “Many of the diagnosable psychological conditions where we would seek professional help could be prevented or healed if we applied ‘emotional first aid’ to our wounds when we first sustained them”.

Winch notes that it is often easier to recognize when a physical wound needs more treatment – e.g. recognizing a minor cut vs a wound that needs stitches. It is more difficult to recognize emotional wounds, so we are more likely to neglect them until they get more serious. “We would never leave a cut on our knee unattended until it compromised our ability to walk. But we leave psychological wounds unattended all the time, even until they literally prevent us from moving forward in life”.

To help with framing and recognizing the different types of emotional wound, Winch compares each of them to a corresponding physical injury. For example:  rejection is compared to “the emotional cuts and scrapes of everyday life”; while loss and trauma are like “walking on broken bones” and guilt is “poison in our system”. This helps to frame the treatments by keeping the physical analogy in mind.

The steps in each chapter are practical and approachable. For example, to fight back against self criticism and build self-esteem, he advises exercises like:

  1. List or write out negative or self critical thoughts that you have
  2. Then build counterarguments to each of the criticisms
  3. Refer back to the counter arguments whenever you feel overwhelmed

The book is littered with examples from (anonymized) patients and their steps to improvement, to show that it really can work. And it is all backed with references to more than 250 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

“Emotional First Aid” feels useful to have as a reference, especially in a remote or austere environment. Winch directly notes that his book should not be a replacement for professional help for serious emotional or psychological injuries. However, he also notes that seeking professional help may not always be practical or possible. “Emotional First Aid” is quite accessible and clearly written; it should be usable by anyone.


  • Comments (7)

    • 5

      That does sound like an interesting book, and I appreciate your well-written review of it.

    • 7

      Brown Fox, thank you for this review. The book sounds very helpful. In a similar vein, it occurred to me that families or groups with unhealthy dynamics or unresolved issues, resentments, etc., would do well to address them in a non-emergency situation. They aren’t going to magically improve or go away in an emergency. They could potentially make a tough situation worse.  Thank you again for this book review.

      • 3

        Thank you both for the kind words. I’m glad if this is useful.

        I agree with you 100% – for any work on solving problems or self improvement, it seems best to start now. If anyone in my group has difficulty or needs help, I’d like to help them. It benefits me too if we are all operating in top shape, mentally and physically.

    • 8

      I have struggled in the past with most of those seven common emotional injuries. Working with a therapist has been such a life saver for me and has given me my life back. When you struggle with these ’emotional injuries’, it not only drains your happiness, but can literally halt personal progress, give pain reactions in your mind that manifests itself in your body, and just be miserable to deal with.

      A book that I am in the middle of reading and that has helped me out so far is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. What it has helped me realize is that there are many things that I should just not care about. If someone cuts me off in traffic on my way to work, I can dwell on it the entire day trying to think of who he was, why he is so important to go ahead of me, how I would like to ring his scrawy little neck…, oooorrr… I can just not care whatsoever. I only have a certain number of f*cks I can give in a day, so don’t waste it on him. There are many more helpful tidbits in the book beyond just choosing what to give your f’s about, and if you can handle the large amount of F-bombs contained within, it has some good advice in there. 

      I was so tired from pretty much being emotionally beat up and bloodied that I noticed how it impaired my judgement and could be a potential danger not only in my every day life but would only be compounded upon in an emergency. Having the skill set or a book like the one you mention to handle such emotional wounds is important. During the end of the world, you may not be able to get depression medicine or see a counselor and you need to be able to bandage up yourself the best you can on your own.

      • 5

        Hey Frank, I am glad to hear about your progress. Kudos and good work.

        I agree with you, it can make any task more difficult. I’m glad you have found some techniques that work for you.

        On only having a certain number of “f”s in a day, I have also heard that called Spoon Theory. Do they discuss that in your book?
        This site has an article on “cultivating a survival mindset”, which I think matches well with your idea of “just not having an opinion” about some things. I like to focus on my “circle of control” – what positive actions can I take to do something good, or make progress? And try not to worry about the rest. There is another article about that here.

        For what it’s worth – “Emotional First Aid” agrees with your strategies. Several of the tips and steps in the book involve practicing not wasting time on having a negative opinion, or being careful how you spend your “f”s.

        Best of luck to you.

      • 3

        Thank you for your kind response. I had not heard of the spoon theory before but it does sound the same to the number of f’s you can give in a day.  I look forward to reading the other two articles you shared.

    • 2

      Very glad to see this book reviewed on these forums — I picked it up a year or so ago and thought it was awesome. The concept that “first aid” even exists for mental health was an empowering eye opener for me.

      I found the stories and examples very helpful for reinforcing the metaphor of “first aid” for mental health. Some of the most powerful moments are realizing there are concrete steps we can take to fix problems, and this book was it for me in realizing how many more options I had (than I previously realized) for maintenance and improvement of my mental health.