In my experience, psychological flexibility is vital for physical flexibility.
The first post in this series considered the impact of psychological flexibility/inflexibility on flexibility training and signs suggesting that psychological inflexibility was impacting your flexibility progress.
This series will provide practical strategies to reduce the impact of psychological inflexibility on flexibility training through acceptance, non-judgmental awareness, cognitive defusion, thought challenging, and goal-based action.
However, you may have to calm your system before practising these strategies.
Calming for stretch
We are all inclined towards psychological inflexibility when we train flexibility. Our nervous system is wired to be protective, so unfamiliar inputs, such as deep stretches, are perceived as potentially dangerous. It can be advantageous to be psychologically rigid when we are threatened. For example, it's unhelpful to be considerate when confronted by a mugger. In this case, quick, intuitive decisions give us the best chance of survival.
Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated when we are threatened. Physiologically, this results in heightened sensations (including increased nociception), heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. It also influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours to promote action .
Under the influence of our SNS, nerve impulses in our brains are diverted from the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), involved in reason, logic, and problem-solving, to the amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for sensory meaning, emotions and memory (especially involving pain and fear)(Mizuno-Matsumoto et al., 2020). Our actions are driven by impulsive thoughts, fear/pain-based memories and strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, panic and anger.
Knowing that stretching can incline our bodies to sympathetic NS activation, we may need to soothe our system before practising physical and cognitive flexibility.
This group of strategies aims to;
-Desensitise your nervous system so that stretching is less likely to be considered threatening.
-Increase tolerance to stretch to allow you to stretch further.
-Allow you the opportunity for positive stretching experiences.
Affirmations are short statements that, when you repeat, change how you think, how you behave, and how your body responds to threats (Sherman et al., 2009).
When developing affirmations for flexibility, try to make them short and believable. Statements that are repetitive or rhythmical are most effective as they engage the language centres of your brain. Consider developing flexibility affirmations about your robustness, adaptability, capability or your acceptance of the process.
'I'm safe; I'm in control.'
'I can sit with this.'
'I've got this.'
'I love this; I want this; I need this.'
Engage your senses
Familiar and soothing inputs engage with the part of your brain that regulates emotion. This can help you to disengage from unhelpful thoughts.
Some sensory inputs are almost universally soothing, such as darkness, the scent of lavender, warmth, deep pressure and music. Inputs that are meaningful to you or that you associate with pleasurable experiences are the most effective.
Research has found that meaningful music can increase the release of the hormone dopamine, which increases our motivation and sense of reward, and oxytocin, which increases our sense of well-being and acceptance. The therapeutic effect of music is magnified when experienced with others (Chen et al., 2022).
While breathing is automatic, we can exert some control over our breathing patterns even during times of threat. By controlling our breathing, we can reverse the impact of SNS's fight or flight response (Russo et al., 2017).
There are many different breathing techniques. Find what works for you. Here are some simple examples:
1. Square breathing: Imagine your breath is the sides of a square. Exhale for 4-6 seconds; Inhale for 4-6 seconds.
2. Purse lip breathing: Breathe through your nose and breathe out through puckered lips to slow your exhale.
3. Intercostal diaphragmatic breathing: Soften your tummy as you breathe in and aim to expand your chest wall as much as possible. Pause, then allow your rib cage to drive your breath out.
4. Ocean breath: Breath in through your nose, exhale with moderate force by drawing in your ribs while slightly tightening your mouth and thought to make a long audible 'Ahhhhhh' sound.
Visualisation is creating a positive mental image of your desired outcome, for example, doing a full split. The more detail you give your visualisation, the more effective it is. Focus on what it would feel like to achieve this goal and the positive emotions and helpful thoughts associated with it. Your body will start associating training for this goal with positive thoughts and emotions, and stretching will be less threatening because your brain is more familiar (Collet et al., 2013).
Practice Practice Practice
These exercises may be simple, but they are challenging to put into practice. Consider calming your nervous system as a skill that improves with practice. Start by working with your strengths. If you have difficulty with visualisations, mindfully listen to music; already practice affirmations, add some flexibility-related ones. Begin developing these skills at rest while you are already calm, and gradually add them to your flexibility training.
The next post will detail practical strategies the develop acceptance in relation to flexibility training.