For most of us, life will include some emotional pain. That’s the pain we feel in the aftermath of upsetting common experiences like rejection, failure, and loneliness.

Author Guy Winch, PhD, says there are all kinds of techniques we can use to recover when we find ourselves hurting from emotional pain. Not unlike putting a band-aid on a cut to keep it from getting infected, we can learn to recognize dangerous thoughts and intentionally stop them from festering and damaging our self-esteem.

Dr. Winch believes that our emotional hygiene is severely neglected. “We brush and floss our teeth daily but what do we do to maintain our psychological health?” he asks. “I would argue that the consequences of poor emotional hygiene are much worse than poor dental hygiene. After all, would you rather lose a tooth or your mind?”

Listen to our interview with Dr. Winch below to learn how you can use emotional first aid to overcome loneliness in your life:

PsyCom asks the expert

Recognizing psychological injuries—failure, rejection, loneliness—and the way our negative self-talk impacts our emotional resilience is the first step in breaking out of the negative cycle of ruminating and unhealthy brooding. “It’s important to understand that there are all sorts of ways our minds deceive us,” Dr. Winch says citing loneliness as one of the chief drivers of distorted thinking.

“Loneliness makes us feel pessimistic. It makes us misjudge our relationships. It makes us feel that people care less than they actually do,” says the author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts. “When we are in a lonely place, it’s easy to assume people don’t care. It spurs on the thinking that a lack of caring is the reason our friend didn’t like the picture we posted on Facebook over the weekend but when you bump into her days later the first thing she tells you is she loved the picture but was just too busy to hit the like button. Meanwhile, you’d been feeling rejected.”

“Loneliness isn’t like cigarettes—it doesn’t come with a warning on the package.”

Recognizing when our thinking becomes repetitive is important because when we are ruminating we are no longer problem-solving, and that can set us up for clinical depression and other chronic health conditions, Dr. Winch explains. “We have to battle negative thinking and avoid falling into the habit of over-focusing on distressing events so we can move forward.”

The American Psychological Association recently declared that loneliness is a bigger health epidemic than obesity and smoking combined. Because it doesn’t just impact our emotions, it impacts our health in an extraordinarily negative way. Research shows that people struggling with chronic loneliness have up to a 14% higher chance of experiencing an early death and are more vulnerable to other health conditions, yet we don’t experience it as dangerous.

“Unfortunately, loneliness isn’t like cigarettes—it doesn’t come with a warning on the package,” Dr. Winch says. But we can change how we are feeling by overriding the inner voice that tells us the person doesn’t care so there’s no point in reaching out because they won’t respond anyway.

“You see we didn’t evolve to be happy. We evolved to avoid pain. That negative inner voice wants to protect us from getting hurt again. It is NOT interested in our happiness or in helping us to connect with others,” Dr. Winch says.

How to Reboot Your Emotional Health

It’s not easy to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while but when you’re lonely attracting people back into your life is exactly what you need to do to stop the despair. “What happens when we’re lonely is we tend to adopt a risk-averse mindset. We feel so emotionally raw that we don’t want to set ourselves up for any kind of rejections or other social pains so we tend to reach out less, withdraw and feel angry about the world,” the author explains. “Then when we do reach out we do it either as an over-reach—too aggressively or desperately or we under-reach in a withdrawn and hesitant way that makes us feel further stuck.”

To minimize the risk of failure and maximize the chance of successfully connecting when we’re in an especially vulnerable place, Dr. Winch advocates reaching out electronically.

“Sending a text or email is perfectly acceptable but you need to make sure you do it in an inviting way,” Dr. Winch explains. “But manufacturing an upbeat tone can just be too challenging when you’re feeling bad. If that’s the case, send a positive text and add a smiley emoji. It’s sooo much easier and that’s totally fine.”

For the best result, be sure your approach is upbeat and pleasant as that will more likely garner a positive response.

Don’t say: “Wow, I haven’t heard from you in three months. Have you completely forgotten about me?

Instead say: “Hi. I’ve been thinking about you. Let’s grab a coffee or schedule a catch-up call.

See the difference? It’s these very small moves that often lead to connection, Dr. Winch says. Here, a few other ways to beat back the negativity:

  1. Guard against putting yourself down.
    Dr. Winch says self-esteem is like an emotional immune system that protects you from emotional pain and strengthens your emotional resilience. An effective way to heal self-esteem is to practice compassion for yourself. When you hear that inner voice telling you, you’re not worthy of friendship or a loving spouse or that you deserve to be treated without respect, imagine a close friend is feeling bad about herself and write a supportive email. Then read the note back as a note to yourself.
  2. Disrupt negative thoughts with a healthy distraction.
    When you’re caught up in negativity and can’t stop replaying painful scenes in your head, interrupt the negative self-talk with a task that requires concentration. Do a challenging crossword puzzle, lose yourself in a complicated recipe, play solitaire or take a kickboxing class. Studies show that even two minutes of distraction can reduce the urge to focus on the negative.
  3. Look for purpose in loss.
    There is always meaning in loss. It hurts to lose a close friend or relative but it may bring you closer to someone else in your life. Deriving purpose from the loss can promote recovery from it. It’s challenging but try to imagine the changes you could make that will help you live a life more aligned with your values and purpose.

Heartbreak over a failed relationship or other disappointments can trigger an especially intense form of loneliness and despair. For help recovering from the pain of heartbreak, Dr. Winch’s  new book, How to Fix a Broken Heart (released Feb. 13, 2018) is full of more useful insights and advice. It’s available everywhere books are sold.

Last Updated: Feb 1, 2020