bend but don't break Dr. RBF psychology blog

Things That Bend Won’t Break

I’ve been thinking about the importance of flexibility at lot lately.

​Flexibility has profound implications for our lives: the strongest things are usually the most flexible.

Skyscrapers are built to be stable and to move with winds and earthquakes. In a hurricane, the trees left standing are the ones that bend. Even your favorite article of clothing is probably not a stiff, scratchy sweater; it’s the stretchy, comfy, soft thing you never want to take off.

The same holds true for our minds: we benefit from elasticity.

We all know how to do more than one thing at a time: aka multitasking. Contrary to popular belief, we all suck at it and it’s terrible for us. (If you’re interested, you can read more about multitasking here.)

Instead of doing multiple things at once, we are better off learning to efficiently switch between tasks. This is what’s known as Cognitive Flexibility (CF).

My favorite metaphor to describe CF is switching channels on a TV. If you’ve got two shows running at once, it’s hard to understand the plot of either. Even if it takes longer, you’re better off watching one and then the other. And, if you can’t switch between channels at will, you’re going to get stuck watching a show you hate. That’s where CF impacts our Emotional Flexibility (EF), which is super important for your well-being.

Take for example you are stuck in traffic, you are impatient and frustrated. What happens when your boss calls you on the phone? What about your kid who just found out his hamster died? You don’t want to respond to all of those stimuli with the same emotional output. You need to be able to use different emotional regulation strategies as the environment changes.

After all, if you want to build a house, you need more than just a hammer. If you come with only one tool, you’ll only be able to do one task, and if you don’t practice, you won’t be able to be efficient at using any of the tools in your toolbox when you need them.

If you want to read more about EF you can click here. And here’s another study about connection between emotional flexibility and resilience link.

Interested? Here are some things you can do to build your Emotional Flexibility:


Step One: Pay Attention

Notice when you get stuck. How are you feeling in that moment? Perhaps tired, stressed, depleted, or overwhelmed.
Remind yourself that you are entitled to feel your feelings. You cannot heal what you cannot feel. Every feeling has a beginning, a middle and an end, if we let ourselves feel them. If you are pushing away or ignoring difficult or confusing feelings, you will get stuck and won’t be able to work on increasing flexibility.


Step Two: Practice

EF is closely correlated to our overall mental health. More Flexible= Healthier. Which means if EF is not your strong suit you have to work to become more skilled at it. Spoiler alert, EF is not a strength for many of us, and we all benefit from learning new skills here.Here are some things to try in your practice to build this muscle.

Write. Take the moment of suck, and come up with other options. What do you have control over? What’s outside of your control? What can you do to change your experience of the situation? For example, when you are stuck in the airport on the way home from vacation? Can you remember your best moments on vacation to help you from becoming a tower of rage in the moment?

Meditate. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to enhance people’s ability to switch between tasks. Although there are different types of meditation, mindfulness meditation is the type that works best here. Check out a study that discusses that here.

Nourish. We need enough serotonin. And Dopamine. Make sure you are eating enough complex carbohydrates (vegetables and fruit). Some supplements can help if taken regularly:. For example, magnesium, fish oil, vitamins C and B6. Read more about my take on Nutrition and Mental Health here. (Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements).

Exercise. Regular exercise boosts energy with endorphins and helps end repetitive loops of thinking. Running, Cycling, Hiking, Weights, Yoga, whatever. Just move your body.

Sleep. Specifically, REM sleep appears to increase cognitive flexibility. You can read more about that here.

Talk. That’s where friends and of course therapy can help.

Don’t push away the uncomfortable feelings. Welcome them as an opportunity for learning. Not easy, but even that cognitive reframe is important because we are all going to have difficult feelings. Every. Single. Effing. Day. Growth comes from discomfort. So the question isn’t if you are going to struggle and get stuck again; but what happens when you’re faced with the next uncomfortable feeling? How do you empower yourself to lean in and learn more about yourself?

Have you tried any of the options I mentioned? Are there other things that have helped you when you are stuck? Leave a comment and let me know.