Emotional self-help is an excellent tool to recover from those situations that leave us depressed and make us hit rock bottom, such as the loss of a loved one or the rejection of someone significant. It is also a powerful tool to better deal with the daily ups and downs of life, so that they generate less stress and anxiety.
Emotional self-help resources help us better deal with adversity, heal our emotional wounds, and ultimately change our view of the world. And sometimes that’s all we need to regain our mental balance and move on.
What are emotional wounds really?
When we go through a difficult situation that makes demands on us beyond our psychological resources, “emotional injury” or full-blown trauma can result. In practice, what happens is that we lack the necessary tools to deal with this situation: We don’t know how to deal with the rejection of the group, the death of a loved one, the humiliation of the partner or the failure in a professional project.
Typically, over time we mature and develop the skills that allow us to deal with disappointments, failures, and setbacks more effectively, with less emotional cost to us. However, sometimes we are not able to use these tools and we do not manage to process what happened to us. Then reference is made to a trauma or emotional wound.
In fact, when adversity is too great or takes us by surprise, we can fall into a state of shock that prevents us from activating the psychological resources we normally use. In these situations we can feel deeply disoriented, confused and anxious.
That traumatic experience doesn’t just take place in our mind, it also leaves an imprint on the brain. In fact, trauma is accompanied by biochemical dysregulation. The amygdala, which is one of the emotional control centers of the brain, is constantly activated because it considers that there is still a danger, although in reality it is already a thing of the past.
This activation generates an excess of cortisol, a hormone that in turn inhibits the functioning of the hippocampus, which is the structure in charge of giving meaning to the experiences we live and we are able to turn the page. Therefore, a kind of vicious circle is produced: The fact that we cannot process a situation keeps it active in our mind, and by staying active, it prevents us from assimilating it.
In this sense, an investigation carried out at Harvard University discovered that emotional wounds are recorded in the brain. These psychologists scanned the brains of people who had experienced trauma as they listened to a description of what had happened to them.
They found that these experiences activated both the amygdala and the visual cortex, indicating that people were reliving the trauma. On the contrary, Broca’s area, the area responsible for language, was not activated, suggesting that these people had not consciously processed the painful experience; which means that they had not been able to incorporate it into their life history and, when the memory was activated, it continued to generate the same intense pain and suffering.
For this reason, one of the missions of emotional self-help is to get us to assimilate and accept what happened, so that we do not continue dragging that pain because when the experiences remain active, they continue to influence our behavior, determining our decisions and, of course, affecting our mood and reducing our well-being.
Emotional self-help to heal from within
In an experiment carried out at the universities of Massachusetts and Stanford, it was found that the way we analyze and evaluate the events we experience determines our emotional reactions. These psychologists asked a group of people to see a series of photos classified as “emotionally negative.”
Some were asked to re-evaluate the image so as not to continue experiencing negative emotions. Others were only told to focus on the emotions they were experiencing. Thus it was discovered that people who managed to find an alternative explanation that allowed them to change the negative valence of the potos, experienced fewer painful emotions.
This means that, despite how hard events may be, our way of interpreting reality and the meaning we give it is essential to deal with what happens to us. At this point, emotional self-help comes into play since, deep down, there is no one who knows you better than you.
1. Acknowledge the emotional wound
After a traumatic event, people may become reluctant to acknowledge what happened. It’s a defense mechanism. They fall into a state of denial and act as if nothing significant had happened in their life. They believe that denying what happened will erase their tracks. Unfortunately it is not. If you do not recognize the importance of what happened to you, you will not be able to heal that emotional wound. Remember that healing comes from acceptance, not denial. Therefore, even if it hurts or is uncomfortable, it is important to be aware of the impact that this traumatic event has had on your life.
2. Don’t run away from your feelings
Some people do not admit that they feel bad, they hide their suffering behind a mask of feigned joy. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that you don’t want to feel bad, but hiding your emotions won’t make them go away. It is not about wallowing in suffering, because it is not healthy, but if you do not recognize the problem, you will not be able to solve it. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you have an open emotional wound and that at this time in your life you feel vulnerable. The mistake is to continue using that mask of security because after time it will end up completely cracking and it will make you break down in the worst possible way,
3. Don’t judge your emotions
We own our actions, but not our emotions. This means that you can control anger and manage sadness, but you can’t help but feel them. Therefore, a big mistake is to judge the emotions you experience by classifying them as “negative”. That trial adds even more anguish and discomfort to the situation. Instead, it is worth understanding them as simple reactions to a situation that has hurt you. Experiencing those emotions does not make you weak or a bad person. It’s not your fault you feel this way. So don’t judge yourself.
4. Understand your emotions
The emotions you are experiencing are likely not new. Try to remember when you first felt them. You may discover an emotional wound that you left open many years ago and that is still festering. If we were rejected as children, we will react to rejection much more intensely, so it will hurt us more. Try to assume the role of an outside observer and, without judging, just feel and try to understand the message that those emotions bring and their connection to your past. You may find that you are overreacting or that to heal that emotional wound you must first make peace with something that happened to you at another time.
5. Accept mixed feelings
When a person embarks on the path of emotional self-help and dives inside it, they usually discover contradictory feelings. Sometimes these contradictions generate dissonance, which is expressed as a diffuse malaise. You may wonder how it is possible that you still love the person who abandoned you or justify the person who treated you badly. Discovering those conflicting feelings can be a very hard blow. You might think that you are a weak or unworthy person, but in reality you are not. We all experience contradictory feelings, especially in situations of great emotional impact or when we have had an important affective connection with someone. Face those emotions as if they were witnesses in a court case: Listen to what they have to tell you, they will give you clues so you can understand why you are at that point.
6. Keep irrational beliefs under control
When you’re emotionally hurt, you’re likely to immediately be peppered with a host of questions: Why did it just happen to me? What have I done to deserve it? What does what happened to me say about me? Of course, taking our share of responsibility and learning from mistakes is positive, but often the answers to these questions lead down the alley of low self-esteem and self-flagellation. For this reason, it is important that you detect the irrational beliefs that prevent this emotional wound from healing and that you put more rational and objective thoughts in their place that help you look to the future. Blame will get you nowhere, so keep your self-talk in check to prevent it from adding salt to the open wound.
7. Take care and treat yourself with kindness
A basic rule of emotional self-help: Take care of yourself. The American journalist Sydney J. Harris said that “The best time to relax is when you don’t have time for it” because that is precisely when you need it the most. When you’re hurt, angry, or distressed, it’s easy to forget yourself, but emotional wounds can only heal with soul rest, which means taking time to reconnect with yourself and treat yourself with kindness and compassion. How you treat yourself during these difficult times can make a difference and speed healing. Therefore, try to do what relaxes you and helps you rediscover serenity. It is not wasted time. It’s earned wellness time.
8. Keep a therapeutic diary
Words heal. Writing a therapeutic diary can be very effective to heal that emotional wound. There is no “correct” way to write that diary, the most important thing is that you feel free to express what you want, according to your needs and mood. The important thing is that you write in the first person and do not judge or censor yourself. Putting black and white what you think or feel can help you identify triggers for trauma and better understand its impact. It can also help you identify the coping strategies that work best and the ones that keep you trauma bound. A study conducted at the University of Auckland revealed that therapeutic writing can even speed the healing of biopsy wounds.
9. Forgive, it will set you free
Most emotional wounds are accompanied by a large dose of resentment. The person blames his executioner or blames himself. However, no matter how many emotional self-help books you read or how many psychotherapy sessions you attend, if you don’t forgive from the heart, the wound will not heal, it will remain open and hurt. You may need time to take that step, it is not convenient to rush, but when you are ready, you need to forgive and let go. You will realize that at that precise moment you get rid of an enormous weight that was suffocating you. Remember that forgiveness is not for the one who caused you harm, but rather it is an act of love towards yourself. Forgiveness frees you from that traumatic event allowing you to move on with your life.
10. Learn and grow
Every experience, however painful it may be, contains a lesson. We can only suffer or learn from what we have lived and become a stronger person. In fact, you may not be the person you want to be right now. It happens to all of us at some point and it is not something negative, on the contrary, it is an incentive to continue growing. Take advantage of that emotional wound to “update” your personality. When you have disassociated yourself from the emotions and feelings that prevented you from seeing clearly what happened, learn the lesson and ask yourself how it helps you grow. In this way you also become a more resilient person for the future.
Last but not least, don’t rush the healing process. Emotional self-help takes time. There are no shortcuts to healing from trauma. Healing is a process and it doesn’t usually happen in a straight line. There will be successes and setbacks. That cycle of achievements and relapses is normal when there is an emotional wound. When it seems that everything has passed, bad days or weeks will come. At that point, try to stay calm, persevere, and cultivate a more positive attitude. Treat yourself well and remember that you can overcome it.
Robinson, H. et. Al. (2017) The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing. Brain Behav Immun; 61:217-227.
Rauch, S. L. et. Al. (1996) A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emission tomography and script-driven imagery. Archives of General Psychiatry; 53(5): 380-387.