Welcome to the next in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane, and supported during the current crisis. This time we’re going to look at the importance of flexible thinking.

When we are faced with new challenges, pressures, or unpredictable events a common difficulty is keeping our thoughts in perspective.

During the current health crisis and lockdown, it is likely that we will find ourselves at times over-focusing on the negative, making catastrophic predictions or false assumptions that can undermine our sense of balance and proportion.

Thinking flexibly is a key resilience skill that allows us to make a more accurate appraisal of the threats we face, to have more balanced thoughts so we can stay emotionally and physically calm.

What is flexible thinking?

Although we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we think and respond. Research tells us that resilient people experience the same stress reactions as the rest of us, but they are able to bounce back more quickly because they tend to think more flexibly and find more optimistic explanations for negative events.

By paying attention to our thoughts, particularly when we have a strong physical or emotional reaction, flexible thinking helps us find ways of viewing and responding to a challenging event or situation in a more balanced way.

When we notice our negative thoughts, flexible thinking helps us to stand back from them and analyse if they are helpful or not.  We can put the thoughts on trial, by testing out our assumptions and negative predictions. We can weigh up the evidence and check out whether the facts of the situation support the way we are thinking and feeling about it. Once we start to gain perspective in this way it is possible to find alternative more balanced ways of perceiving the situation.

How to think more flexibly

Flexible thinking may not come naturally. After all, our brains are programmed to be alert to threat – constantly evaluating the situations we encounter, drawing on past experiences and making predictions about future events.

But fortunately, flexible thinking is a skill that we can all learn. As a core component of cognitive-behavioural therapy, this technique has been shown through many studies to have a positive impact on people’s mental health, in particular those struggling with depression or anxiety disorders.

There are four key skills involved in flexible thinking:

  1. Noticing negative thoughts
  2. Analysing the thoughts: are they helpful or not?
  3. Identifying any thinking errors
  4. Finding other more balanced ways of thinking about the situation

This probably all seems very straight forward but it does take some practise, as we need to learn to recognise when our thoughts are negative, to step back from the emotions surrounding them and observe them objectively. We are not used to thinking about our thoughts in this way, so it might be a struggle at first.

1. Noticing negative thoughts

Negative thoughts tend to be fleeting and automatic, flashing across our minds without us really noticing them but leaving behind changes in our emotions and bodies. These changes are linked to an increase in sympathetic nervous system arousal or the threat response.

At these times you might notice strong emotions (e.g. anxiety, anger) or physiological sensations (e.g. increased heart rate or feeling hot)  Try asking yourself:

  • What was going through my mind when I started feeling this way?

Write down your thoughts.

  • Negative thoughts are usually in the ‘I’ person, or something ‘about me’ (e.g. “I can’t cope”, “other people are thinking I’m bad at my job”)

Try to discover what it is that feels so threatening to you about the situation by asking yourself:

  • What do I think will happen here?
  • What do I think it says about me, about what is wrong with me?
  • How do I fear other people will see me as a result of this?

2. Analysing – are these thoughts helpful?

Ask yourself:

  • Are these thoughts helpful or useful?
  • Are they true or am I making an assumption?
  • Are they helping me stay resilient and bounce back?
  • Or are they making me feel more stressed?

It can help to test out the thoughts, by asking for feedback from other people, doing a survey or asking if other people see the situation in the same way?

Deliberately test out doing things differently. If the thoughts make you respond in one way, try doing something else and notice what’s different as a result.

3. Identifying thinking errors

Check out whether the thoughts contain a thinking error. Thinking errors are like habitual traps we fall into, in which we make assumptions, jump to conclusions or overgeneralise the negative. Here are some examples:

Thinking errors

Have a read through this list. See if there are any thinking errors that regularly hook you in. We all have our favourites. Learning to recognise the typical thinking errors that tend to catch us out helps us fast track through flexible thinking as we begin to spot an unhelpful negative thought more quickly.

4. Finding more balanced thoughts

Once we have spotted our negative thinking, recognised it is not helpful and identified any thinking errors, we might already be starting to see other ways of looking at the situation.

We can also use the following tools to explore possible alternative views:

  • Look for evidence – do the facts of the situation back up what you are thinking?
  • Look for exceptions – if you are thinking a particular situation always goes badly (overgeneralising) try looking for evidence to the contrary. Was there a time in the past when the situation didn’t go badly?
  • Ask how likely is it? – when we are making catastrophic predictions we tend to see the negative outcome as a certainty rather than just a possibility. Getting a realistic view of the probability of that outcome can help here.
  • Ask yourself how someone else would see this, or what you would say to someone else in the same situation. Would you be as hard on them as you are on yourself? Would they see the situation in this way or would they have a different explanation?
  • Try to see the bigger picture – ask yourself how will this situation look to me in 5 years’ time?

Weighing up the evidence helps us to find alternative thoughts that are more balanced and should help to calm the symptoms of stress. Balanced thoughts are more likely to be associated with hope and optimism, as we start to see the situations we encounter more accurately and less emotionally.

Remember, flexible thinking takes practise. But the more you do it the easier you will find it. In time you will start to recognise unhelpful thinking patterns as they arise and find more balanced alternatives with ease.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.