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Psychological Flexibility – What Is It and How To Increase It?

Psychological Flexibility – What Is It and How To Increase It?

Maybe you’ve noticed that some people have more friends, better interpersonal relationships at all levels, and they’re more at peace with themselves. If you ever wondered what their secret is, you should learn about psychological flexibility.

What Is It?

Psychological flexibility is the ability to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, while choosing one’s behaviors based on the situation and personal values.

(Hoffmann, Rask, and Frostholm, 2019)

Psychological flexibility has 6 core processes:

  1. Acceptance. This doesn’t mean passive resignation (as many misinterpret). It is actually an expression of your willingness through actions that reflect your choices (choices based on your values).
  2. Defusion. It is a mean of keeping a healthy distance from your feelings and thoughts. Instead of identifying with them, you become the observer. Thus, you develop better self-regulation abilities. Careful though, not to confuse it with unhealthy detachment.
  3. Contact with the present moment. Of course, the present isn’t always pleasant or comfortable. But if you have the attitude that “this is it” in every moment, you’ll get through harsh moments without catastrophizing. Thus, you won’t feel anymore the need to run away from your experiences, but you’ll live them with calm and self-compassion.
  4. Self-as-context. This is similar to defusion: instead of identifying with the content of your thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings, you’ll see that you’re the one experiencing them. So, you’re not the self-as-content, but self-as-context.
  5. Values. They motivate and guide your actions. Clarifying your values clarifies what is important for you. Once you are conscious of what really matters to you, you’ll draw the directions in your life in a more integrated and harmonic manner.
  6. Committed action. It means committing to act towards a concrete goal (goal which is guided by your values). When you commit to achieve it, you’ll get going easier through unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety) and you won’t feel anymore to avoid or over-control certain steps on that road.

Why to Increase It?

The higher the psychological flexibility, the lower the possibility of developing mental heath problems.

Psychological flexibility increases general well-being and it’s very useful in treating anxiety disorders, depression, stress, OCD, substance abuse, chronic pains, and other emotional or psychological problems.

Plus, you’ll have more inner balance and better balance between your important life domains.

Another perspective on the health benefits of psychological flexibility arrives from work on the ability to switch one’s focus from one life domain to another, one time perspective to another, and ensure that various important elements of a person’s identity are being satisfied in a harmonious manner. […]Human beings are unique in their adaptability or ability to find alternative routes toward desired ends. Change is more of a constant than stability when observing how people operate in their everyday lives.

(Kashdan and Rottenberg, 2010)

3 Ways to Increase Psychological Flexibility

1. Mindfulness

By being present, conscious, and aware, you’ll find your inner balance and the balance between you and your environment.

For example, by being mindful you’ll detect when something goes beyond flexibility and becomes lack of boundaries, so you’ll establish healthy limits.

Mindfulness is achieved through exercises. A very nice example of mindfulness imagery exercise is as follows.

3. Become Conscious You’ll Die

You get so caught up in daily life that you forget everything’s going to end and you don’t even know how much time you have until the “Game Over!” moment.

Our society makes a big mistake of avoiding any thought about this unavoidable part of reality. It’s natural and it’s going to happen: you’ll die (as I will too).

Appreciate life and enjoy its possibilities as long as you can. What’s the point in being rigid when you don’t know if you’ll ever have the chance to explore life again? What’s the point of sticking stubbornly with your ideas when this means choosing to see a very limited part of life?

Be flexible, explore, open your mind, be free and get curious about other’s expression of freedom. Bring diversity in your life. 70 years are, anyway, not enough to know everything on Earth, but flexibility for sure helps you to have more experiences and a larger perspective than intransigence.

3. ACT

And if you don’t find the above 2 ways of becoming more flexible helpful, or if you find it too difficult to change on your own, there’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy you can try it with a psychotherapist. Although “Accepting and Committing” seems rather passive, ACT is an action-oriented type of psychotherapy.

It’s main purpose is to help you find the answers to:

  1. What do I want my life to be about?
  2. And what is stopping me?

And it encourages you to embrace your feelings and thoughts rather than feeling guilty or fighting them. It helps you accept the difficulties of life.

According to an ACT conceptualization, the cause of psychological distress is psychological inflexibility.

(Hoffmann, Rask, and Frostholm, 2019)

Final Words

Give it a try, do an experiment: commit to be more flexible for one day or one week and see if something changes. If you find it promoting your well-being make a commitment to prolong the period of you being more flexible on purpose, until it becomes part of you.

I promise you’ll find it fun and creative. I wish you a beautiful week and great experiences!

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
(The images used in this article are taken from the article "Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health", by Kashdan and Rottenberg.)
Hoffmann, D., Rask, C. U., & Frostholm, L. (2019). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Health Anxiety. In The Clinician's Guide to Treating Health Anxiety (pp. 123-142). Academic Press.

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