In my last post, Flexible Thinking Part 1, I reviewed what flexible thinking is and its benefits. Over the last few months, we have all been “thrown in the deep end” of flexible thinking as the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to make adjustments. Flexible thinking, or the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations, helped us transition to distance learning, working, shopping, and socializing.
In this post, I briefly highlight how flexible thinking can improve and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety:
Depression tells us things will never change and reduces hope for the future. Flexible thinking applied to depression recognizes the opportunity each day and, in each situation, to do something different and breaks down negative feedback loops.
Anxiety feeds on possible, but unlikely, scenarios playing out in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Flexible thinking reminds anxious minds they have the resources around and within them to solve current and future problems and to create solutions to those problems. In short, flexible thinking focuses on “possibilities rather than deficiencies.”
What can we do to increase and improve our mental flexibility?
Engaging in mindfulness activities, (think deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery) yoga, aerobics and relaxation techniques have all been shown to increase executive functions and mental flexibility. Research has also shown we can also enable flexible thinking through positive affect (positive emotions such as cheerfulness, pride and energy and their expression), openness to experience and self-control.
As we consistently engage in flexible thinking, we can have more control over our thoughts and responses, reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and stress, meet our goals and successfully navigate the changing circumstances in our everyday lives and interpersonal relationships.
Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught
me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids
produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability
to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.
Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional,
and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from
multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage
rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and
prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for
spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and
Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the
restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had
a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the
endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to
understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really
think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.
Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in
all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and
mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always
done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening
to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of
others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into
our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is
“supposed to be.”
There is a popular Huffington
Post article (“Reasons my
son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly
highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the
child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and
the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason
and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the
doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults
alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.
As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is
unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and
protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional
boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.
We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid
thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids,
could benefit from more flexible thinking.
Is there an issue with your friends or spouse
that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the
situation to increase connection with that person?
What could be a different way to address the
issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
Could any of these same questions be applied to
work relationships and circumstances?
You need to be a pipe cleaner.
Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During
one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came
across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between
flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece
A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts
to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful.
Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside,
come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in
the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can
bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core
(read: personal values and goals).
A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at
all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can
be easily manipulated with no resistance.
Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting,
shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What
areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships,
situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these
scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?
Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I
will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.
that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable.
When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting,
and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know
we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers
I love this quote from Mr. Rogers; it is the epitome of what I believe as a therapist and strive to achieve with my clients. We are all human and we have immense capacity for handling emotions, but sometimes those emotions feel completely and utterly overwhelming. Having a person that we can trust can make those emotions feel more manageable and we might, just maybe, even be able to talk about them more openly.
We all want to feel like we matter and that
someone cares about us; that is a universal human desire. No one wants to feel
like they are all alone in this life, but often that is a feeling that we
experience. How do we combat those feelings of being alone, isolated, not
heard, or not cared for? Connection. Connection to someone or something that
allows us to feel seen, heard, and understood. Connection requires vulnerability
and vulnerability can be scary. Let’s be honest, we have all probably experienced
a situation that we chose to bury, ignore, or deny an emotion rather than risk
being hurt by being vulnerable and sharing.
Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers as our introduction into learning about feelings. He didn’t shy away from talking about the hard topics either: death, divorce, pain, rage, and anger all featured on his show aimed at children. His forthright presentation of issues that we, as human beings, all struggle with was not typical for the time where children were, largely, encouraged to be seen and not heard. How refreshing to help children, and the adults that we became, to learn to recognize, identify, and name the emotions that we were feeling and that it was ok to be scared, it’s human. And if it’s human, then it’s mentionable and manageable with a little help from our friends in the neighborhood. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., Holzer, L. (Producers), & Heller, M. (Director).
(2019) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Motion Picture]. United
States: Tristar Pictures.
In my work with people from all walks of life and circumstances, the one thing I have found to be true in every case is that humility always aids in healthier interactions and higher quality relationships. Another observation, is that humility is not very easy to come by. We, as human beings, kind of stink at this humility thing.
So, what is this humility
thing? Well, in my personal and very unofficial definition it means not viewing
yourself (or anyone for that matter) as better than anyone else. It is throwing
out the right vs wrong, better or worse than mentality. I think that the
following two beliefs are an essential first step in maintaining humility.
Remember that every single human being on this
earth has had and will have an entirely unique experience. None of us can have
the exact same experiences and views as someone else.
Each one of those unique human experiences and
vantage points are valid.
Not only do these beliefs lay the
ground work for much kinder and constructive interactions, but it will ease you
of the stress that comes from expectations to be right or better than. Humility
might sound like this:
“I think it is like this, but I could be mistaken.”
“I want to try this, and I would love to hear what you would
like to try.”
“Can you tell me what that is like for you?”
“I was mistaken.”
“I am sorry about the pain you are feeling due to my choice.
Will you tell me more about it?”
I challenge you
to incorporate even one of these phrases into your conversations, perhaps with
someone you haven’t been getting along with very well, and see how the
relationship improves. Even if you don’t find the outcome you were looking for,
kindness and softness are never wasted.
Brainstorm with your child a short ritual you will both perform every time you say goodbye. This could be a secret handshake, a special song, a mantra you say together or a combination of words and touch. Anything that is meaningful for both you and your child will work.
Don’t Use Tough Love as
a Go To
Karen Young of Hey Sigmund explains how
fighting against our natural fight or flight instincts is a losing battle.
“We humans are
wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive,
automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment or negotiation just
won’t work. If you were in quicksand, no amount of any of that would keep you
there while you got sucked under. You’d fight for your life at any cost. School
is less dramatic than quicksand but to a brain and a body in fight or flight,
it feels the same.
empower your children by teaching them how this primitive part of our brain
works and breathing exercises they can employ to combat them.
Do Encourage Your Child
To Express Feelings Through Art
One of the most therapeutic and helpful things your child can do to understand and combat their anxiety is to explore their fears and experiences through art. A study conducted by Khadar et al. (2013) showed that the boys with separation anxiety developed more adaptive behaviors and emotions, and the children tended to share more feelings and improved their communication skills. This particular study used the medium of paint, but drawing, sculpting or any other medium that appeals to your child can be used.
Don’t Teach Your Child
to Fight Their Anxiety
teach your child to recognize and verbally point out what they are feeling and
where in their body they are feeling it as an outside observer. Have your child
thank their anxiety for doing its best to keep them safe. But use their
thinking brain to then tell the anxiety that they are safe and that they’ve got
Do Externalize the
Have your child describe their anxiety—what it feels like, what it says and what it looks like. Then have your child design a creature that embodies anxiety. Have your child name the object and talk through the aspects of the creature your child creates. This gives you and your child a way to visualize, separate their feelings from who they are and a new language to speak about their anxiety.
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety that is concerning you, please schedule an appointment with me by calling 801.944.4555
Human beings are social creatures and need connection. Psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have suggested many reasons for why we need connection. These reasons include: providing for physical and emotional needs, creating tribal safety, invoking social and economic efficiency, and offering structure for human development.
explored this topic, I find our need for others is multifaceted. In mental
health, there are overlapping influences, often termed the biopsychosocial
model of health. This phonetic amalgamation promotes the importance of
three overarching schools of thought: (1) our biology, (2) our thoughts and
emotions, and (3) our social environment. Our social connections are no
small matter. We experience social connection with family, friends, church
relationships, clubs, and work situations.
One reason I feel we need others, is to create affirmation and validation for our life journey. As children, we look to authority figures for validation. At first, this person is usually a parent or guardian. When we enter our adolescence, we turn to friends. As adults, we may seek approval from peers, or authority figures such as church leaders, a spouse, or a boss at work. Marriage relationships uniquely create opportunities for seeking intimate affirmation and validation. As a therapist, I see couples desiring validation if they are “enough,” or if they are “doing things right.” These bids for validation are expressed in a variety of scenarios in the kitchen to the bedroom.
we arrive at a place where self-confidence eclipses the need to seek validation
from others. When this occurs, we help
support others, and our self-esteem is self-sufficient. I don’t think this process is a bad thing.
Instead, I feel the understanding we gain is helpful and includes three
as other people bid for validation from us, we should feel complimented, as we
are now a companion in their healing journey. Affirming another is an
opportunity to support and honor the path and choices others make in a way that
creates self-awareness and growth, confidence, and security while allowing for
a space of safety.
we need to know how hurtful rejection can be for those who seek for an
affirming voice from us. As children, we are often told “no,” “don’t,” or
“you cannot.” Usually, these commands are barked from parents who want to
protect their children. However, as a conscience being willing to aid in
the healing journey of others, an affirming voice such as “you can,” “you’ve
got this,” or “I trust you,” is more effective.
understanding your attachment style, or the attachment style of others can
assist in explaining how validation and affirmation are expressed. An
assessment of how you engage with others can aid you and those you love to help
establish securely attached relationships.
For example, some people will anxiously seek for attention, and others
pull back when things get messy, avoiding receiving the needed help the
As humans, we connect with others for a variety of meaningful ways. Seeking affirmation and validation is a human characteristic that moves people toward a place of self-confidence. We start by trusting the voices of others we trust, and then we move to trust our internal voice. We do these in elaborate dances that deserve our attention and our nonjudgmental observation.
If you or a loved one needs help in understanding or seeking validation, please give me a call at 801.944.4555 to schedule an appointment today.
It’s a story I hear about all of the time in my personal and professional life. “My last child is going to kindergarten, or first grade. Yay!! I’m going to have so much more time for other things!” And inevitably, a month later, I hear a very different story. “I don’t quite know who I am anymore. Or what I want to do with my time.” A lot of these women have been stay at home mothers, or work part time, while they have young children. Once the children are in school, their life changes quite drastically. They have more time to focus on themselves and their own interests. While this sounds like a time of liberation, a lot of women find it to be a time of high anxiety.
For years, society has taught women that their primary, and sometimes only, role is to be a mother. Whether you subscribe to this mentality or not, it is very present in our society. Therefore, a lot of women take that role on as their only sense of self. As a mother, sometimes I find myself getting lost in child rearing. I have to remind myself that while I love being a mother and it is important to me, I can still have interests and passions outside of that realm. This realization comes to light quickly when all of your children are attending school full time. So, to all of the mothers who are sending their youngest off to kindergarten/first grade, or to the mothers of young children that need to revisit who they are I challenge you to answer the following five questions.
What do I like to do for fun?
What do I do for self care that reenergizes me?
What relationships would I like to strengthen?
Do I want to go back to work, or work more?
Other than being a mom what do I want to be known for in my life?
These questions can help guide you to some career choices, as well as just things you can do for yourself when you have the time. If you are having a difficult time defining who you are, and who you want to become in the future come into therapy. Working with women to find their inner strength is something I love to do! Good luck as your kiddos head off to school. I’ll be at Wasatch Family Therapy with lots of congratulations and the tissues.
Wasatch Family Therapy is excited to announce this school year’s social skills group. This group is opened ended allowing kids to come into the group throughout the school year. There is a six session commitment, but children can stay longer, if needed. Groups are $50 per session, due at the time of the group. Please contact us at 801-944-4555 to register for the group.
People have many reasons for why their life is so stressful. Why they can’t de-stress. Why they feel so out-of-control. Why they believe it will just never change.
While many reasons exist, my experience is that people have three key reasons why they can’t seem to de-stress their lives. Here are a few to think about.
1) My life is too complicated to change!
I’ve heard this reason or derivations of this excuse many times. Whether it’s multi-tasking a crazy schedule or simply feeling there is nothing I can change, this line of reasoning hamstrings us.
2) Life never gives me a darn break!
While this reason sounds similar to number 1, it’s actually quite different. Whether it’s a mom who is exhausted by their 3 kids or a dad trying to close that important deal to support their family, it’s exhausting. By the way, these roles can be switched and aren’t gender exclusive. The point is, we need to SEEK a break in our lives.
3) Stress keeps me young!
I’ve spoken with people who have told me that stress is “motivating” or that stress keeps me “involved in life.” And yes, even that it “keeps me young.” The latter has been spoken with a knowing chagrinned glance that it actually isn’t helping. Which actually begs the question of “how well is that working for you?” The reality is, it simply is NOT helping.
Ideas That Work!
Here are 50 wise and proven ways to de-stress your lives (Hint: The hard part is actually making the time, not in doing them!)
Read Garden Movies Hike Piano Affection Backpack New outfit Vacation Work (job) less Bucket list Friends Work out Increase Intimacy Get away Spirituality Sex Travel Education Walk Step back Make Love Change careers Re-connect Healthy Emotions Trail Run Date Flower Garden Exercise Religion Journal Volunteer Arts Ski Creativity Crafts Mountains Yoga Rock Climbing Symphony The Mighty 5 Bear Lake Sunset Opera Sunrise Thunder The Beach Work smarter Self-care Alone time Switch it up!
There are easily 50 more ideas to add to this list. However, that’s not the point, i.e., to add more stress. The critical point is that unless we make changes and do more for ourselves, we suffer. We’ll just experience more and more stress that just simply perpetuates itself. That. Makes. No. Sense!
What makes perfect sense is choosing several of the items from my list and just doing them. Hiking is amazing in the Wasatch. Watching a summer movie rocks. Journaling is helpful. Reading a book energizing!
And, I can (almost) guarantee that your stress level will drop. You will want to do more for yourself. Become fiercely loyal to it!!!
Michael Boman, LCSW has 20 years experience in helping people de-stress and reconnect. Reach out to him at 801.944.4555,
if you feel this blog has moved you to want to take back your life.