Psychological flexibility for physical flexibility
In my experience, psychological flexibility is vital for physical flexibility.
This post will define psychological flexibility/inflexibility and help you identify if psychological inflexibility is impacting your flexibility progress.
My next post will offer practical strategies to reduce the impact of psychological inflexibility on flexibility training.
What is psychological flexibility?
Psychological flexibility is the ability to pursue goals meaningfully despite uncertainty, setbacks and unpleasant experiences (Cherry et al., 2021). It requires us to practice acceptance, mindfulness and cognitive defusion (noticing thoughts without getting caught up) while committing to actions that support our goals (Hayes et al.,1999). Psychological flexibility predicts better outcomes for those with chronic pain (Åkerblom et al., 2021), lower levels of distress and better quality of life (Francis et al., 2016).
In contrast, psychological inflexibility is characterised by resistance to change, avoidant behaviour and rigid thinking (Cherry et al., 2021). For individuals with differences in executive functioning, emotional regulation and sensory processing, psychological inflexibility may result from the desire for certainty. It is commonly observed in neurodivergents and people with mental illness or chronic pain; however, everyone tends towards psychological inflexibility when vulnerable or threatened (Cherry et al., 2021). For example, it can be advantageous to think and act rigidly ( ie make snap judgments and act based on emotions rather than practice mindful acceptance) when we believe we are in danger.
How does psychological flexibility relate to physical flexibility?
Our nervous system is wired to be protective, so unfamiliar inputs, such as deep stretches, are perceived as potentially dangerous. Like psychological flexibility, flexibility training requires us to tolerate unpleasant thoughts, emotions and sensations and to train consistently in ways that challenge our weaknesses. Thinking and acting rigidly denies us the opportunity to practice acceptance and learn to tolerate, reinforcing the perception of threat and further increasing our sensitivity. Ultimately, psychological inflexibility leads us to avoid aspects of our training that we find challenging to the detriment of our goals.
Is psychological inflexibility holding me back?
Read and consider the following statements in a curious and non-judgmental way. Remember, we all tend towards rigid thoughts and acts when challenged. If you strongly resonate with some of these, psychological inflexibility may impact your flexibility progress.
- I avoid goal-related training that I find challenging.
- I get caught up in unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and sensations to the detriment of my training.
- I need to stop/avoid/get out of strong stretches.
- The thoughts I engage with when stretching are based more on emotion than reason.
- I tend to ignore things that are going well in my training and focus on the negatives.
- I believe there is only one way to achieve my flexibility goals.
- Anytime I experience pain or notice unusual or unpleasant sensations when I stretch, I worry that I have hurt myself.
- When I achieve a flexibility goal, I can't celebrate because I know it could be better.
- I hold myself to higher standards than I expect of others.
- I find it challenging to adapt to changes in my training.
- I believe there are objectively correct/incorrect ways of stretching.
- I feel the way I was initially taught is the right way and resist change.
- I am in a rush to get out of sustained stretches the second time is up.
- I am reluctant to go deeper than usual in a stretch, even if I feel safe because I am concerned something bad will happen.
- If I dont stretch deeper each session, I think that something is wrong.
- Most of my training is focused on things I feel comfortable doing, rather than goal-related exercises.
- I feel I can do nothing to stop myself from becoming overwhelmed when stretching intensely.
If this list leaves you feeling 'seen', dont worry, you are not alone. My next blog will offer strategies to reduce the impact of psychological inflexibility on flexibility training.
Note I am a physiotherapist and flexibility coach, not a psychologist. These concepts are based on my clinical / coaching experiences and my personal studies in psychology and neuroscience. This information is general in nature; when in doubt, seek professional advice.
Åkerblom, S., Perrin, S., Rivano Fischer, M. et al. Predictors and mediators of outcome in cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain: the contributions of psychological flexibility. J Behav Med 44, 111–122 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-020-00168-9
Cherry, K. M., Hoeven, E. V., Patterson, T. S., & Lumley, M. N. (2021). Defining and measuring “psychological flexibility”: A narrative scoping review of diverse flexibility and rigidity constructs and perspectives. Clinical Psychology Review, 84, 101973. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2021.101973
Francis, A. W., Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2016). The development and validation of the Comprehensive assessment of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy processes (CompACT). Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 5(3), 134-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2016.05.003
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy (Vol. 6). New York: Guilford press.