Psychological Flexibility – What it Is and Why You Need It

psychological flexibility

photo by: David Matos

by Andrea Blundell

Psychological flexibility is arguably a fundamental aspect of good mental health. But what is it exactly, and how can you have more of it?

What is psychological flexibility?

“A healthy person is someone who can manage themselves in the uncertain, unpredictable world around them, where novelty and change are the norm rather than the exception.” (Kashdan and Rottenberg, 2010). [1]

Psychological flexibility means we can stay present with and adapt to the challenges of life. We take useful action despite our thoughts and feelings, and stay true to our values

This can include things like:

And now for psychological inflexibility

Not sure if you are or aren’t psychologically flexible?

When trying to understand flexibility, it helps to consider the opposite, psychological rigidity. Often a part of mental health issues or disorders, it can look like:

  • a refusal to change our behaviours or see what we are doing that is causing our life to be difficult
  • using ‘avoidance coping’ (putting our head in the sand instead of dealing with things)
  • overthinking and worrying instead of adapting
  • over focussing on some areas of life and neglecting others
  • sticking to ideas even if we don’t know we believe in them
  • being knocked over by stress
  • unable to plan and work towards goals.

Forget being nice

psychological flexibility

photo by Niels Jilderda

Psychological flexibility doesn’t mean you are always nice and accommodating. Remember, it means that you are able to discern the best approach to a situation. Sometimes unpleasant emotions and anger help us be more assertive, or help us create change in the world.

A study looking at healthy emotional responses asked participants to role play getting rent out of a tenant who hadn’t been paying. The participants who worked at getting into an angry mood performed better at the task. [2]

The benefits of psychological flexibility

The recent Covid-19 pandemic provided a perfect laboratory for examining the role of psychological flexibility in the face of mass stress.

A UK study found that those who exhibited psychological flexibility during the pandemic had higher levels of wellbeing, lower anxiety, and lower Covid-19 related distress. [3]

As well as less anxiety and low moods we can:

The ACT Model of Psychological Flexibility

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of talk therapy that has teaching you psychological flexibility as its core mission.

It offers a triangle model of psychological flexibility that has three points, or ‘pillars’: be present, be open, and do what matters. 

It suggests these three pillars are achieved by the six following tools:

  • acceptance
  • defusion
  • contact with the present moment
  • self as context
  • values
  • committed action.

So what do these mean and how do they work?

How to be more psychologically flexible

1. Work at ‘active acceptance‘. 

Note that this is not acceptance in a ‘grin and bearing it’, passive kind of way. But as:

“the active, voluntary embracing of moment-to-moment experience….a wilful experiencing of feelings as feelings, thoughts as thoughts, sensations as sensations, and so forth.” (Chin et al.). [4].

2. Recognise that you are not your thoughts (defusion). 

Fusion is when we think we are our thoughts, instead of realising that we are something bigger than just what we think and feel. What ACT therapy calls ‘defusion‘ means creating some distance.  Instead of saying, “I am sick”, we step back and recognise, “I am a person who is currently not feeling well, and has the thought that she is sick.”

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) also focuses on helping you recognise you are not your thoughts, using thought charts can help you question how true your thoughts really are, and what a more balanced perspective might sound like. This helps you avoid negative mood cycles and dysfunctional choices.

3. Be in the present moment. 

Mindfulness is a tool that helps you be aware of the present moment. How do you feel right now? What are you thinking? What is going on around you? It helps us to make better choices with what we are actually dealing with, instead of using rigid responses based on past experiences or our fear of what ‘might’ happen in the future.

And mindfulness can also help you recognise that ‘You’ beyond the ‘you’. That you are not the changing content of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, but something bigger and more permanent, simply experiencing it all. This is what ACT therapy calls ‘self as context‘.

4. Recognise and live out your values. 

If we don’t clarify what really matters to us, our personal values, we can always feel exhausted and stuck. When we start to align our life to values, on the other hand, we have more energy and we see more clearly.

And we can finally take committed action. When we are moving towards our values then we are less likely to be deterred by challenges as we really care about where we are heading. We are more likely to put good goal setting into action.

4. Work on your creativity.

A study on what made young people and children more ego resilient came up with a list of characteristics that include being curious, exploratory, and creative. [5]

Creativity doesn’t have to mean making art. It can mean learning to brainstorm, or challenging yourself daily to do one thing differently, whether that is the way you load the dishwasher or working from a different table in the house.

5. Learn to perspective hop.

One of the fastest ways to shift a situation is to see it from another perspective and to always remember we are only seeing one side of things.

6. Work on life balance.

Take time each week to check in with all areas of your life, from family to work and money, social life and hobbies to spirituality. What areas have you spend time on? What has been neglected?

7. See beyond assumptions.

This is especially important when it comes to relationships.

In his comprehensive paper, “Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health”, Todd B. Kashdan points out that:

“Premature commitments about a person’s personality, including expectations about how they will behave, fuel our natural tendency to “tune out.” In our motivation to reach closure about a person….,  we also end our search for new and potentially useful information about each situation being different (even slightly) from any other”.

To move beyond assumptions, learn how to ask forward looking ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, and how to reflect back until you are clear on what the other person is saying.

What types of therapy can help me become more psychologically flexible?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).  Again, it helps you accept what you can’t control, then to  recognise and commit to taking the actions that will improve your life and moods.

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). You learn to  stay present in the here and now, and how to manage your emotions, reactions, and behaviours so you can create a life you feel good being in.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Recognise, question, and change your thinking before it leads to difficult emotions and dysfunctional behaviours.

Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT). Recognise your thoughts, but work at not judging or being attached to them over trying to change them. How can you move forward despite your thinking?

Want help to be more flexible in life? We connect you with top London talk therapists. Or use our booking site to source UK-wide registered therapists and online therapy


Still have a question about how to gain psychological flexibility? Ask in the comment box below. 

 

Footnotes

[1] Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865–878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001.

[2] Tamir, M., Mitchell, C., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Hedonic and instrumental motives in anger regulation. Psychological science19(4), 324–328. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02088.

[3] Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020). COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of contextual behavioral science17, 126–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.07.010.

[4]. Stefan G. Hofmann, Gordon J.G. Asmundson, The Science of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,
Academic Press, 2017. ISBN 9780128034576, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-803457-6.00036-2.

[5] Gjerde, Per & Block, Jeanne. (1986). Egocentrism and Ego Resiliency. Personality Characteristics Associated With Perspective-Taking From Early Childhood to Adolescence. Journal of personality and social psychology. 51. 423-34. 10.1037/0022-3514.51.2.423. 

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