Psychological Flexibility: Flexing Your Thinking to Improve Your Wellbeing

Many things happen in our lives that we cannot control or predict. Unexpected, large-scale traumatic events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine can be sources of stress, as can daily life stressors, such as conflicts in relationships, money troubles, or an upsetting interaction. Psychological flexibility, or the ability to adapt our thinking and behavior when new or unexpected events arise, is an important skill we can use to increase individual wellbeing now and in the future.

Let’s say you are being tailgated by an aggressive driver on a two-lane highway. You feel
scared and worried about what will happen if you need to use your brakes. No one is around to help.

Employing psychological flexibility in a given situation can be seen as a three-stage sequence of events:

  1. Evaluating the needs and demands of the situation or context;
  2. Selecting a response or coping strategy; and
  3. Monitoring the success of the approach you employ and modifying it as needed.

In the example we illustrated above, where the stressor was a tailgater, this sequence might look like:
Context sensitivity = There is potential for danger here. You need to remove yourself from its threat. The other driver may not react quickly enough if you brake.
Repertoire = Continue going the exact same speed and be extra alert for the possibility of needing to brake.
Feedback = You feel stressed and scared. You still don’t feel safe. They have not stopped driving too closely to your car.

You may then decide, from the feedback loop, to modify your approach and select a new behavior in your repertoire. Perhaps you can use your right turn signal to indicate you would like them to pass you, for instance. The feedback loop can continue until you have met your goals for the situation.

This sort of flexible thinking, as you might imagine, is a predictor of resiliency and creativity. Research shows psychological flexibility is associated with a better quality of life, particularly in older adults. In the workplace, exercising flexible thinking tends to lead to better job performance, improved learning on the job, innovation, and better overall mental health, including lower levels of stress and emotional exhaustion. In clinical settings, psychological flexibility training has been shown as effective in treating a myriad of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and substance use, and this training works whether it is delivered in person or online.

The great news is psychological flexibility can be practiced and improved. But how?

Create optimal conditions for being flexible. By practicing mindfulness, doing yoga and aerobics, and engaging in relaxation techniques, we give ourselves a solid foundation to deal with stress in a purposeful, thoughtful manner.

Cultivate optimism. Rather than focusing on what the pandemic has negatively impacted in our lives, for instance, we can reframe our thinking and consider what has made us change for the better. Choose to view your struggles as part of being human, rather than something that happens to you.

Pause. Focus on your reactions and attitudes. What are you feeling? Why might you be
feeling this way? Allow yourself the space you need for an intentional response.

Exercise creative thinking. Consider unusual solutions. Seek outside perspectives. Frame issues from different angles. Challenge your own beliefs. By utilizing divergent thinking, we can overcome embedded thought patterns and see the situation from a new angle, which could provide a fresh perspective on the matter.

Keep your decisions aligned with your values. When you use your core values to guide your decisions, you gain peace of mind by keeping your integrity intact. At the same time, our values can change over time, and some situations present an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate which values are true for us and which may need to be reconsidered.

In clinical settings, we can employ cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as structure learning, or the ability to extract information about the structure of a complex environment and decipher streams of sensory information, to promote psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility helps us see that what we’re doing in response to a given stressor is not leading to a successful outcome, and it shows us how to make the appropriate changes to our behavior to achieve our goal. It is a handy tool in our kit to cope with stress. The more we exercise flexible thinking, the stronger it gets, providing us with a protective buffer between everyday stressors and possible negative outcomes.

 

 

Sources: ethicalsystems.org, psychologytoday.com, weforum.org

Sign Up To Receive Our Latest Blog Posts!

Learn more tips on living well and understanding mental illness. Help to end the stigma, and hear inspiring stories of recovery. Sign up here!