In this series on flexibility beliefs:
The first post in this series focused on common unhelpful flexibility beliefs; beliefs that reinforce behaviour that is detrimental to your progress (e.g. avoiding training things that are challenging), heighten unpleasant physical sensations and evoke uncomfortable emotions.
We explored helpful flexibility beliefs related to adaptability, personal control, acceptance and robustness. Helpful flexibility beliefs lead to reduced sensitivity and increased tolerance to stretch as they support consistent, challenging, safe and mindful flexibility training.
We learned to begin nurturing helpful flexibility beliefs by practising thought monitoring during stretching to identify thoughts negatively impacting our flexibility training.
In the last post we reviewed common cognitive distortions that impact flexibility training. Cognitive distortions are thoughts that reinforce unhelpful beliefs and reflect unhelpful thinking styles such as catastrophising or all or nothing thinking. When you interrogate cognitive distortions, you recognise they are not based on facts, don’t reflect a balanced view, aren’t helpful or cant be known.
Reframing Unhelpful Flexibility Thoughts
It’s universal to experience unhelpful thoughts while training flexibility. Bodies respond to the challenging and unfamiliar input that is stretching with sympathetic nervous system activation. The ‘fight/flight/freeze/flop’ response is designed to prepare your body for protective action. You may notice increased heart rate, blood pressure, sensory acuity, and muscle tension when this system is active. What you may not be so aware of is your impaired ability to think rationally. As a result, you are more likely to react based on emotions rather than make reasoned decisions. From a preservation perspective, this is very helpful. It’s better for you to react quickly to protect yourself from danger rather than to use valuable time thinking through your options.
Unfortunately, your body’s response to surprising a bear in the woods can be very similar to stretching, despite the level of threat being incomparable. You can do things to soothe your system and diminish this reaction, but it explains why your thoughts can seem to be screaming at you when you stretch.
Evaluating the validity of a thought
Just because a thought is intense, persuasive or repetitive, doesn’t make it true. In fact, having intrusive, repetitive negative thoughts can signify increased sympathetic nervous system activation and diminished reasoning. So it’s worth being especially critical of these thoughts.
To identify if a thought is a cognitive distortion, ask yourself these questions (some are more applicable in certain situations):
- What are the facts?
- Is this always true?
- What is the likelihood this will happen?
- Are there other ways I could think about myself or this situation?
- Is it helpful for me to think this?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- What are the positives in this situation?’
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
- Am I underestimating myself?
Reframing unhelpful flexibility thoughts
Identifying a thought impacting your flexibility training is a good start, but trying not to think a thought doesn’t work. The classic experiment is; See how long you can not think about an elephant for. Usually, the harder you try not to think about something, the more likely you are to think about it. You can’t just try to ignore unhelpful thoughts; they need to be revamped.
If your unhelpful thought while stretching is ‘It hurts too much, ‘stretching doesn’t hurt, isn’t a helpful reframe because it is just a direct contradiction of your thought and isn’t accurate or relevant. More helpful alternatives could be ‘I’m sore, but safe’, ‘I can tolerate this discomfort’, ‘pain stretching means I’m challenging myself, or ‘This will be over in a moment. The most appropriate reframe depends on the situation and the unhelpful flexibility belief it’s underpinned by. Let’s take a closer look at this example:
As you can see, understanding the context of a thought can result in a more meaningful reframe that resonates with you. It’s usually helpful to develop a collection of relevant reframes to target a single cognitive distortion.
Examples of helpful reframes
While helpful reframes are personal, these examples may help you develop your own.
‘If you feel pain, you are causing damage’
‘Pain isn’t the same as damage’
‘I have experienced pain in the past without injury’
‘That bridge doesn’t count because I have bent arms’
‘I can see the progress in my bridge and will continue to work on my shape’
‘No position is perfect the first time’
‘Unless I stretch further each time I won’t get better.’
‘Flexibility fluctuates from day to day’
‘I make the best progress by listening to my body’
‘I’m too old to train flexibility’
‘I can give flexibility training a try’
‘Other people my age train flexibility’
‘If I can’t do something, there must be a trick to it’
‘While I find some aspects of flexibility training come naturally to me, I recognise there is a process that requires time and effort on my part’
‘While I am frustrated, I appreciate the skill required to perform this and the people that have achieved this’
‘I have been stretching for years, I know what works for me’
‘It’s possible that I may learn something new’
‘There is no harm in trying something different'
‘Stretching is unbearable’
‘At times I find stretching challenging, but I always manage’
‘I enjoy less intense stretching’
But is reframing enough?
The unhelpful thoughts that arise when you stretch are difficult to challenge. They are part of a process designed to drive protective action. There will be greater urgency to the thought ‘It hurts too much’, than any helpful reframe you develop because your system wants you to stop doing something it interprets as a threat to your safety. Reducing the influence of these unhelpful thoughts requires conscious effort and lots of practice. I spend most of my days helping people work though unhelpful beliefs related to pain and flexibility training, and I still have thoughts that yell at me when I stretch. These thoughts are normal. You can’t get rid of unhelpful thoughts, but you can minimise the attention you give them, and you don’t have to act on them (eg not tolerating pain or avoiding stretching altogether). The next blog post on this topic will look at strategies to increase stretch tolerance.
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