As we enter the final few months of the year, many of us may be taking a glance back, noting those things we have accomplished, and resolving to tackle the yet unfulfilled goals we have set for 2017. Typically, at the outset of each year, many of us identify one or more health goals and we may now be feeling disappointed by the ways in which we’ve fallen short in meeting the mark. Although we would list health as a high priority, we’ve failed to exercise as planned. We may be telling ourselves, “At the very least I’ll start walking because the days are getting cooler.” Maybe we ponder starting a stretching routine having realized that our muscles have been feeling extremely tight and constricted, like rubber bands. We are acutely aware that we are no longer the limber beings we used to be. While for many, the impending autumn equinox initiates a period of reflection about what has transpired over the course of the year, it does not necessarily prompt internal assessment of our own emotional functioning. This year, let’s take some time to examine our psychological flexibility. How adaptable are you? Are you able to bend and flex with varying circumstances? Or are you more rigid, needing to have things “just so”?
Within the field of psychology, we have various schools of thought regarding the primary factors that support emotional health. Some have offered the opinion that what is most important is the ratio of positive versus negative life experiences; others have emphasized the presence and quality of meaningful relationships. Still others have highlighted the need for purposeful engagement and activity, while certain groups assert the salience of positive emotions, along with fostering a growth mindset.
Recently, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to the topic of psychological flexibility in relation to health. The term psychological flexibility refers to one’s ability to adapt persistently to ever changing life circumstances; it conveys the will to be resilient in the face of challenges, to alter one’s course or coping strategies, as needed, rather than becoming stymied. Psychological flexibility is a super skill linked to overall health outcomes. Specifically, low psychological flexibility has been found to predict the following:
- Higher anxiety/worry
- Sad mood/depression
- Diminished work performance
- Difficulty learning
- Substance use
- Diminished quality of life
- Long term disability
In general, people are motivated to avoid discomfort by engaging in behaviors that are familiar. They become stuck doing things in the same ways, using the same techniques regardless of how effective they are. Or, they adjust to change at one point in time, but thereafter resist signs that further adaptation is needed. This is the “one and done” mentality: I compromised before and I’m not doing it again…I’m done! This fixed manner of thinking/behaving sometimes contributes to maladjustment. Inadvertently, we may be sustaining our own suffering because of reluctance to adopt other coping methods, to stretch our minds and ourselves to find new solutions.
To exemplify this point, consider what happens in the context of anxiety. Individuals who are anxious tend to respond in unwavering, predictable ways that avoid exposure to some feared situation. While the avoidance initially appears to alleviate anxiety, paradoxically it is this inflexible restricted range of response that actually strengthens the fear, making it impossible to overcome. Avoidance does not truly relieve the discomfort; rather, it more often amplifies it. In the end, the restricted problem solving or inflexibility, coupled with a drive to avoid uncomfortable feelings, are a disservice to us. We may notice that despite our best efforts to suppress, minimize or avoid, we are still unhappy, anxious, depressed, and feeling powerless to make changes.
By increasing psychological flexibility, we have the ability to become more deliberate in our responses to life stressors rather than feeling like we are at the mercy of our emotions or circumstances. We can indeed live lives more closely aligned with our values, pursuing those things of greatest importance to us. In another article, I will return to this discussion about psychological flexibility with specific strategies on how to enhance this super skill to improve overall wellness.
Reach out to learn more
To learn more about how improving psychological flexibility can improve your health and wellbeing, get in touch with Dr. Terry Crump. You can call or fill out the contact form.