Psychological flexibility for physical flexibility- Part 3-Acceptance

Is rigid thinking/behaviour limiting your flexibility progress?
Ashleigh Flanagan
December 8, 2023

In my experience, psychological flexibility is vital for physical flexibility. 

This series provides 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.

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. Read the post here.

Part 2 discussed the benefit of soothing your nervous system for physical and cognitive flexibility, including affirmations, controlled breathing, sensory soothing and visualisation. Read the post here.

This post will detail practical strategies to develop acceptance in relation to flexibility training.


NB: based on Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) (S. Hayes, 1982).

It's tempting, when stretching, to resist experiencing unpleasant sensations and emotions by trying to avoid and distract. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. Consider how long you can avoid thinking about a 'pink elephant' now I have put the suggestion in your head…

When training flexibility, the longer you avoid challenging exercises, the more you dread them. The more you try to distract yourself from discomfort, the more you feel. If you try to hold back strong emotions, they push back more intensely.

Flexibility training is painful. It evokes unpleasant sensations and emotions because our sense of safety is challenged. A huge part of increasing flexibility is learning to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. Ignoring or avoiding what we find unpleasant exacerbates our concerns and denies us the opportunity to recognise that we are capable. 

While under SNS drive, we have greater sensory acuity, but we dont have the same awareness or clarity over what we feel. We have difficulty localising pain, recognising emotions, identifying why we feel what we feel and articulating these reasons. 

If you need evidence of how much SNS impacts your thinking while stretching, try a simple cognitive task, such as reciting the alphabet backwards or counting up in sevens while in a stretch. 

All stretching should be tolerable enough for you to be able to identify and communicate simple thoughts, emotions and sensations. If a stretch is intolerable, causing you distress or panic, it is not helping but hurting your flexibility progress.

Practising acceptance:

Mindful stretching

We can only practice acceptance if we are aware.

As an exercise, Set yourself up in a tolerable stretch. Don't use a timer. Your only job is to be curious, notice and identify your thoughts and feelings. Label what you feel as a thought, emotion or sensation without judgment or critique. 

For example, you may notice a sensation of pulling in your knee, the movement of your chest as you breathe, the sound of cars outside, feel self-conscious, and think, 'Am I doing this right?'.

It doesn't matter how deep you stretch, how long you stay, what you think or feel, just that you are aware and non-judgmental.

It is usual for your thoughts to turn towards fear, pain, worry and concern. Notice and recognise that these are just thoughts. It can be helpful to label your thoughts, for example, "I have a thought that I will injure myself'. 

Suppose you have difficulty noticing or start to become distressed. Try making the stretch very light and self-soothing before you start, or make the task easier, e.g., only try to recognise sounds. Remember to be kind to yourself. This exercise can be very challenging.

Supported sub-max stretching

For this exercise, adopt a stretch of approximately 70% of your max tolerance. At this level of intensity, the stretch should feel challenging but doable to hold for one minute. Ensure that you are supported in the position so you dont have to work hard to stay in the stretch. 

The main goal is to stay in the stretch for the full minute. This requires you to accept the unpleasant sensations, emotions and thoughts you experience. It allows you to practice strategies (like self-soothing and others we will cover in future blogs) and proves you are safe and capable. If your body learns it is safe, it doesn't need to be overprotective; you become less sensitive to stretch loading and can tolerate more.

It is possible to dissociate, distract or grit through this exercise and not practice acceptance, but this reinforces the stretch as threatening and may increase sensitivity to this stretch over time. A key indication that you are using these less helpful strategies is starting to panic and needing to get out of the stretch as the time approaches the one-minute mark (if you have been ok for 57 seconds, there is nothing dangerous about the last 3 seconds). If this is the case, reduce the intensity of the stretch until you are successful. The dept and alignment doesn't matter; this is about desensitising your system and learning you are safe.

Try to avoid judging the depth of this stretch during this exercise. Your tolerance and sensitivity can fluctuate a lot for a host of reasons. Read the blog here.

The next blog post will discuss non-judgmental awareness and cognitive defusion in relation to flexibility training.

NB: I am a physiotherapist and flexibility coach, not a psychologist. These concepts are based on my clinical / coaching experiences and my studies in psychology and neuroscience. This information is general; when in doubt, seek professional advice.

Continue Reading

pushpress gym management software for boutique gyms and fitness studios