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:
- List or write out negative or self critical thoughts that you have
- Then build counterarguments to each of the criticisms
- 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.