Cognitive Flexibility


Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes a person’s ability to shift or switch between new, unplanned or changing events. It’s also the ability to change from one way of thinking to another. And this can be challenging and uncomfortable, but that is a good thing!

It’s important to develop greater cognitive flexibility when working on your mental health and well-being, and is a key component to mental fitness training. Because when you are down in the dumps, or struggling with sadness, depression, or anxiety, you have to change. You have to change the way you think and your behaviors in order to change the way you feel. And change is hard, especially in these situations, but it is necessary.

And this change does not mean that the sad or depressive thoughts are going to completely diminish. But rather, this change involves reframing those thoughts and leaning into new thoughts. It involves leaning into new activities, but also remembering the old activities that lead to unhealthy feelings. So there is a natural cognitive flexibility that occurs between the different thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Cognitive flexibility is also developed from a willingness to adopt different ways of thinking and different ways of acting. There is an acceptance involved where you understand that things can change and things can arise that you were not anticipating. Sometimes you are feeling great, and all of a sudden, you know what hits the fan and now you’re struggling. Cognitive flexibility comes in to play when you recognize those new circumstances and you take action to change your internal and external states in order to overcome them.

Practical Tips

So how do you develop greater cognitive flexibility? Here are three key areas to work on already discussed in detail on this platform:

Empathy – Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Listen to what they are saying. Understand the way they think and their rationale for either wanting to help you or why they may be hurting you. Be kind and compassionate to them, and try to help them if needed, or, really try to take their advice.

Habits – Break your routine. Go do something new. Take a look at your habits and try to break the bad ones and form better ones. Step outside of your comfort zone. Change things up a bit, whether that’s your meals or your extracurriculars or your commute to work. Do something different and something that’s challenging.

Relationships – Get out and meet new people. Experience new cultures. Adopt new points of view and challenge your beliefs and your ways of thinking. That doesn’t mean you have to adopt new cultural practices or beliefs, but rather, to see and experience the world through a different lens. 

Again, cognitive flexibility is a key component in improving health and well-being. But it is oftentimes difficult to implement into your life. So many times we get stuck in our ways of thinking and behaving because we believe we are right. Or, we know that we are struggling, but yet we are reluctant to adopt new ideas or new ways of thinking or be flexible in our actions. Because it’s challenging! But we need to get comfortable with embracing and leaning into the challenge.

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