Tag Archives: mental flexibility

How mental flexibility helps romantic and family relationships

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote famously in the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina, one of my favorite novels.

Cohesive families seem to share a few critical traits, as most family psychologists agree. Being emotionally flexible may be one of the most important factors when it comes to longevity and overall health of romantic and familial relationships.

That’s the finding of a recent University of Rochester meta-analysis (which is defined as a comprehensive study of studies), published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which statistically combined the results of 174 separate studies that looked at acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness, and emotion regulation in relationships. The research goal was to clarify how mental flexibility, on one hand, and rigid inflexibility on the other, were linked to the dynamics within families and romantic relationships.

Overall, the psychologists found that rigid and inflexible responses to difficult or challenging interpersonal experiences to be dysfunctional, ultimately contributing to and exacerbating a person’s psychopathology, leading to poor overall life adjustment, less satisfactory relationships, and impoverished romantic relationships.

Mental flexibility versus inflexibility
In my practice, I define psychological flexibility as a set of skills that people use when they’re presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences. Such skills encompass:
-Being open to experiences, both good and bad, and accepting them no matter how challenging or difficult they might be
-Having a mindful awareness of the present moment throughout day-to-day life
-Experiencing thoughts and feelings without rigidly clinging to them
-Maintaining a big picture perspective even in the midst of difficult thoughts and feelings
-Paying attention to small moments of joy throughout the day, which I call “stones across the river” in my practice
-Learning to actively maintain contact with deeper values, spiritual or personal, no matter how stressful or chaotic each day is
-Continuing to take steps toward a goal, even in the face of difficult experiences and setbacks
-Learning how to forgive the flaws or mistakes of others, rather than using them as a tool for conflict or blame
-Using spirituality, personal rituals, social support, service to others, and psychotherapy in the face of difficulties

The opposite: mental inflexibility, also has specific behaviors that I discuss with patients, including:
-Actively avoiding difficult or painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences
-Going through daily life in a distracted and inattentive manner
-Having rigidly set ideas, and not listening to others
-Getting stuck in negative thoughts and feelings
-Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a personal reflection and feeling judged or shameful for having them, or shaming others
-Losing track of deeper priorities within the stress, chores, and chaos of day-to-day life
-Getting derailed easily by setbacks or difficult experiences, resulting in being unable to take steps toward deeper goals.
-Not being able to handle small changes, such as fluid schedules, timing, or the mistakes of self or others.

In the Rochester study, researchers found the following, regarding individuals and families who are mentally flexible versus inflexible.

Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
Fewer incidents of punitive, harsh, and negative parenting strategies
Positive regard or opinions of family members
Lower perceived parenting stress or burden
Greater family cohesion
Lower child distress

Within romantic relationships, higher levels of various forms of psychological inflexibility were linked to:
Lower relationship satisfaction for themselves and their partners
Lower sexual satisfaction
Lower emotional supportiveness
Greater negative conflict, physical aggression, poor communication, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance

Mental flexibility is an executive function that can be taught through coaching and therapy. Clearly, the benefits for the mental health of families and couples are penultimate.

Cognitive Dissonance and Mental Health

Cognitive Dissonance is the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings even when those findings can save our lives. The cognitive dissonance theory, most strongly developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger, states that many people are deeply unwilling to change their minds. Similarly, many find it impossible to admit to or apologize for inappropriate behavior.

This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and people attempt to relieve this discomfort or anxiety in different ways. Examples include “explaining things away” or rejecting new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.

When the facts clash with preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong. This clearly manifests itself in the echo chamber of social media and the comment sections, I’m right, you’re wrong, it is someone else’s fault, vaccines are a government hoax, and so forth.

Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with seemingly opposite things that are non binary. Festinger, in his research, argued that some people would inevitably resolve dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe.

Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible and nor should it be. We need to accept that science and data is fluid. As is life. Mental flexibility is painful, and dealing with uncertainty even more so.
The end result is dissonance, but the actual problem is uncertainty and the stress it causes; we crave certainty because it feels safe. Rarely have we as a society been in a time of such uncertainty, and in times of uncertainty our survival instinct drives us to crave certainty.

Regardless of inherent beliefs, it is important to recognize dissonance and recognize that we need to continue to work on flexibility. In short, we need to cultivate curiosity and accept that something we thought to be true might have been right at the time, but wrong now. Don’t try to explain away problems or reject new information; rather, accept that uncertainty exists and understand that we are in uncharted territory.

As we head toward the fall and into the winter season, I am consistently hearing from my patients and local businesses that uncertainty is their biggest challenge. This manifests itself with individuals as well, and data from mental health providers shows an increase in both substance abuse and clinical depression/suicidal ideation. Most mental and medical health providers are at capacity with a 30-40% increase from last year and with long wait times to get an appointment.

It takes great courage to recognize that it is not COVID, it is not mask ordinances or future vaccines, and it is not government or international conspiracies that are our greatest challenge; rather, it is the inherent anxiety and stress that uncertainty causes. Admitting we are wrong requires some mental flexibility, which involves living with dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to conclusions.

Eight hacks to improve mental flexibility

Eight hacks to improve mental flexibility, an executive function that helps with transitions, change, and uncertainty.

1) Change your scenery. Go for a walk around the block. Take a coffee break. Take a vacation. Switch up your environment, and you will feel your mind shift.

2) Exercise offers a great mental boost. Oxygenation of the brain, particularly from cardiovascular exercise is literally fuel for thought.

3) Try something different. Learn to play an instrument or dance, cook a new recipe or even pick up a new language. Sometimes, I even have clients spend time writing using the opposite non-dominant hand. Older adults who participated in a variety of novel and stimulating activities over a six-month period demonstrated a significant gain in creativity, problem-solving abilities and other markers of ‘fluid intelligence’ helped prevent mental stagnation, and even helped stave off dementia. Novelty encourages mental flexibility and over-time supports brain growth to maintain those changes over time.

4) Debate with yourself. Become more aware of what you are saying and thinking. Listen to your words. Instead of being attached to your current way of thinking, try a different perspective. Critical thinking helps with brain functioning and flexibility.

5) Be spontaneous. Change up your routine. Drive a different way to work, take a new class, talk to a new person, or try a new recipe.

6) Mix tasking with breaks, especially physical movement. Going back and forth between a focused/detailed task and then something more physical can lead to more creative and innovative ideas. Research shows that allowing children and young adults who have ADHD to actually engage in fidgeting or physical movement improves performance and concentration. The movement allows the frontal lobe to be able to focus on the task at hand, rather than attempting to keep still.

7) Sleep. REM Sleep is a necessity for consolidation of memory. Memory, in turn, facilitates mental flexibility, and being able to switch between ideas and tasks.

8) Socialize. Reciprocal communication facilitates thought and keeps our brains fresh.

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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