Monday, May 31, 2010

Do Your Brain Yoga -- Research Underscores The Value of Psychological Flexibility

Is it more important to feel positive emotions or negative emotions? Is is healthier to suppress emotions or express them? What's more important to our mental health - the ability to experience the perceptual details of everyday moments (ex: getting immersed in our experiences) or the ability to stand back from situations to think about things objectively?

I think I can guess some of the more popular answers to these questions. Many people believe that they should always strive to feel positive emotions, and if something is bothering us, we should express it -- not suppress it.

Well, things are not always as they seem and there's a reason why psychologists conduct research -- especially on topics that appear to be based on intuitive wisdom. A recent review article in a major psychology journal inspired this post* on psychological flexibility.

First, let me start with a definition. Psychological Flexibility is somewhat difficult to define, but generally speaking, it can be understood as the ability to adapt your thinking, emotions and behaviour to various situations. When people can change and manipulate these three factors, it can lead to many psychological benefits (ex: reduced stress; fewer depression and anxiety symptoms; improved goal attainment). However, when people get stuck using the same strategies and approaches with each new situation, they are more likely to suffer psychological consequences.

Returning to my questions above, let me show how psychological flexibility works.

First, always striving for positive emotions is an inflexible strategy. There are times when negative emotions are needed and are important. For example, worry sometimes motivates us to work harder or solve a current problem. Expressing anger and frustration to others can be a beneficial communication strategy. Feeling anxiety keeps us alert and prepared to react, which is a useful state of mind in some circumstances.

Similarly, the ability to suppress emotions is often considered unhealthy and to be avoided. There is some truth to this, in that the chronic suppression of emotions has been shown to have negative consequences on physical and emotional well-being. However, sometimes suppressing emotions is useful and necessary.

For example, whenever we date or marry someone, the other person is never perfect. Your spouse probably does one or two things (or more!) that can be irritating. Should we discuss and complain about every little thing that bothers us? Sometimes we have to pick and choose our battles, and learning to suppress our annoyance and frustration over the minor irritations is necessary to maintain relationships. There will always be things about people (life, the world, our jobs,...) that bother us. If we constantly expressed how we felt about every little annoyance, we might risk pushing other people away. However, there are times when we should say something about others' behaviour. Knowing when to do this, and being able to regulate our emotions in the process can be a challenge, and certainly requires mental flexibility.

Finally, what about being immersed in the moment (as preached by mindfulness meditation advocates) or being able to stand back and analyze situations. Well, I'm guessing you can see the pattern by now. A balance between these two states of mind is optimal. Sometimes being fully focused and absorbed in something is practical and useful (ex: thinking about a work project), and sometimes it is not (ex: thinking about a work project while having supper with your family).

There are other aspects to psychological flexibility not discussed here (ex: self-control), which I will post about later. The take home message is that psychological flexibility is an important attribute that is actually predictive of happiness and well-being.

Psychological flexibility is a skill that can be improved with practice. So, we should all do ourselves a favour and practice psychological yoga on a daily basis.

Dr. Roger Covin
Montreal Psychologist

* Kashdan & Rottenberg (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psych. Rev., 30, 467-480.