5 Ways to Increase Your Emotional Flexibility

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Being able to “go with the flow” and be flexible in your thinking is a necessary skill for dealing with life’s inevitable changes. This is a trait that helps us adjust more easily to new circumstances, challenges and situations as they arise. Whether it’s starting a new job, taking a new class or getting married, being cognitively flexible helps us to grow and get along better with others.

However, for many people, this is much easier said than done—especially for those who tend to “get stuck” on certain thoughts and behaviors patterns. They may also tend to be stubborn, argumentative or oppositional, worry constantly, get upset when things don’t go their way, be uncooperative (or automatically say “no” to things), or have conditions such as addictions, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, eating disorders, and even road rage. A common feature of all of these is difficulty letting go of thoughts or behaviors.

The Biological Basis of Inflexibility

An area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) tends to be overactive in people who have difficulty with cognitive flexibility. Located in the front part of the brain, the ACG is involved with shifting attention.

When the ACG works well, it allows us to focus on something, let go, and then shift to focus on something else. However, when it is overactive, there is a tendency for people to get stuck. One of my patients described her experience with this as “being on a rat’s exercise wheel, where the thoughts just go over and over and over.”

Strategies for Improving Cognitive Flexibility

The good news is that there are some simple strategies you can incorporate into your life to help you become more flexible and adjust more easily to change. Improving nutrition, exercise and working on thought stopping/reframing can help improve cognitive flexibility.

Change Your Diet

It has been noted that the ACG has many “serotonergic” fibers and that people who tend to be rigid in their thinking or behavior may have a deficit of serotonin.

For many, a diet with a higher ratio of complex carbohydrates to protein can be helpful. In particular, you might try adding chickpeas and sweet potatoes to your diet because these foods help boost serotonin, are high in fiber, and are lower on the glycemic index.

Serotonin levels can also be raised by eating foods rich in L-tryptophan which is a building block of serotonin. Such foods include chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, nut butter, eggs, and green peas.

Exercise

Another way to increase L-tryptophan is by exercising. Exercise also increases your energy levels, reduces your worries, and can distract you from the repetitive thinking patterns that get stuck in your head.

Practice Thought Stopping 

An important part of gaining control over your repetitive thoughts is to become aware of them when they occur—and then practice the simple technique of thought stopping. 

Try envisioning a red stop sign, and saying to yourself: STOP! The more you practice this, the more you may feel control over their thoughts. You can also use a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you catch yourself in a loop of negative thinking.

Document Options and Solutions

Writing down your thoughts helps to “get them out of your head” and allows you to view them more rationally.

Try writing down:

  1. The thought that is stuck in your head
  2. What you can do to help offset the thought
  3. Things you have no control over with regard to the thought

Think Before Automatically Saying “No”

Some people have the tendency to say “no” automatically—even before thinking about what was asked of them. This can be especially problematic in relationships. It is limiting and unnecessary to always dismiss ideas or deny your partner his or her requests.

To help with this, before responding, take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then take five seconds to exhale, while actually considering what the best way to respond would be.

Using these techniques can help you improve your mental flexibility which in turn can help reduce your worries, improve your relationships and reduce the distress you experience when you get stuck on unhealthy or negative thoughts and behaviors.

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