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Anxiety in a Time of COVID: Part 2

We have many internal and external resources available to us when anxiety becomes overwhelming. We can typically recognize an unhelpful anxious thought because it often starts with some variation of “What if…” and or is predicting negative events that are possible but incredibly unlikely.  In this post, I will briefly outline some of the internal and external resources that can be extremely effective in confronting and managing anxiety.

Internal Resources

1)    Talking back to and Challenging Anxious Thoughts:

Anxiety is like an annoying know-it-all and overly critical boss; it constantly points out what might go wrong or what it thinks you didn’t do right, and it is usually flat out wrong! When we talk back to or challenge anxious thoughts with phrases like, “I’m allowed to make mistakes!” or “I’m enough as I am!” and “You don’t know everything!” we are bossing back our anxiety and taking charge.

2)    Past Successes:

What difficulties have you overcome in the past? How did you do that? What did you learn about yourself? Anxiety likes to make us forget or discount all the challenges we have overcome in the past. But, as we stack up our past successes, we are reminded of just how capable we really are, no matter what anxiety says.

3)    Problem Solving Skills, Creativity/Imagination:

Clearly you have gotten yourself this far in life, which means you have solved literally thousands of problems. Life throws curve balls at us regularly, and it is our creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills that help us work through them. When anxiety says things like, “What if you get sick?” We can say back to anxiety, “Then I will rest, get lots of fluids and take care of myself. I know what to do when I am sick.”

External Resources

Support Systems:

Some problems and concerns are outside of our experience and skill set to solve. Who do you have in your life that you could go to for help? Make a list of people in each arena of your life that you feel comfortable approaching and asking for help. For example, who at work can help you when you have questions or problems? When you are at school, who is most likely to have the information you need? Our external resources include people in our support systems, people who know us and care about our well-being and are invested in our success: parents, teachers, friends, family members, coaches and teammates, therapists etc.

When anxious thoughts and feelings begin to escalate, start by recognizing these feelings for what they are, ANXIETY, and then access your internal and external resources to challenge and talk back to your anxiety. 

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Flexible Thinking Part 2: Flexible Thinking and Mental Health

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

Reference:

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865-878.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-inner-life-students/202003/flexibility-in-the-midst-crisis

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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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