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Flexible Thinking Part 1: Make and keep friends, romantic partners, and your job

What is Flexible Thinking?

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 deepen connection.

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.

Application

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 of yarn.

  • 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.

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Halloran, J. (2015, February 9). Teaching flexibility to kids. https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/being-flexible

Khoo, I. (2015, April 29). ‘Reasons my son is crying’ will crack you up. Huffington Post Canada. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/04/29/toddlers-crying_n_7033472.html

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Anxiety and the Big, Scary Dog

Anxiety and the Big, Scary Dog

When I was a small child, my family had several large German shepherds as pets.  I don’t remember the times those dogs jumped on me and knocked me down, though I have been told it happened.  I do remember growing up with an intense fear of large dogs.  Throughout my childhood, when I saw a large dog, my primary instinct was to run away.  

Unfortunately for the young-child-me, dogs enjoy a good game of chase.  By running away, and encouraging the “big scary dog” to chase me, I was reinforcing my own fear: that dogs were scary and should be avoided at all costs.  

Anxiety is often a “big scary dog”.  We feel the discomfort, and seek to avoid it by running away, or avoiding situations that cause anxiety.  When we avoid anxiety-provoking situations, we reinforce in our brains that those situations are unsafe, creating a cycle of fear and anxiety that grows the more we avoid specific situations.  

In order to retrain our brain, we have to confront the big scary dog.  This can be an overwhelming task, so it is important to have tools to draw from.  Three helpful tools are box breathing, positive affirmations, and challenging thinking errors.

Box breathing:

Take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely while imagining moving your lungs in the outline of a square.  At each corner, pause and hold the breath for 4 seconds, then exhale along the next side of the square.  Breathing in this way helps to regulate your nervous system, increasing your sense of calm.

Positive Affirmations:

Words are powerful, and we tend to believe the words we tell ourselves.  A friend recently recounted her experience on a climbing wall.  “I was doing really well, until I looked down.  At that point I panicked and told myself, “I can’t do this”, I sat frozen for several seconds and then let go of the wall, letting the ropes catch me and return me to the ground.”  

If we constantly tell ourselves “I can’t do this”, “This is too hard”, or “My anxiety is too high for coping right now”, we are likely to give up early or avoid the situation entirely.  When those thoughts pop into our minds, we can replace them with a positive affirmation.  “I can do this”,“I am capable”, and “I’m stronger than I feel” are all positive affirmations that can help push back against the anxiety that is preventing us from reaching our goals or functioning in daily life.

Challenging Thinking Errors:  

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that often come along with anxiety or depression.   As with positive affirmations, we can replace thinking errors by challenging them.  Common thinking errors include all-or-nothing thinking (where we view things in very black and white terms), mind reading (where we assume we know what another person is thinking), filtering out the positive (where we focus entirely on the negative, and ignore anything that might counter our current thoughts), and emotional reasoning (taking our feelings as signs, i.e., I feel scared, so I shouldn’t attend this event).  

Recognizing then challenging these kinds of thinking errors can help us confront our anxiety by reminding our brain that there are other ways to see the world and we do not have to be stuck in our anxiety.  

If you have tried utilizing these tools and need more support in confronting the big scary dog of anxiety in your life, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy can help retrain your brain to see the dog not as a snarling beast, but as something more approachable.  ERP therapy is effective in treating anxiety as well as obsessive compulsive disorder.  

If you are struggling with these issues, schedule an appointment with Alice in either the Bountiful or Cottonwood Heights office at (801) 944-4555.

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How to Avoid Getting Trapped Inside Your Own Head

Common Therapy Questions
One common trap that I’ve noticed many people fall into is “black and white” or “all or nothing” thinking.  This is the type of thinking where you think in extremes, and have very few options available to you.  For example, “I’m either smart or I’m stupid”, “I succeeded or I totally failed”.  This type of thinking can prevent you from having a full, realistic view of yourself, your values and beliefs, and from making well-informed decisions.
Visit the link below to learn more about this common pitfall, and how to avoid it!
http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/08/12/5-ways-to-expand-all-or-nothing-thinking/
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