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Coping With Change: Psychological Flexibility
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

"Human beings seem to be hard-wired to resist change. And some people find change more difficult than others. Even minor changes can be disconcerting for those people."

We live in one of the most exciting times in the history of the world. It is exciting because of the rapidity of change. Most other periods of time throughout history there was little change that could be observed in a person's lifetime. Certainly, change occurred but it was cumulative change that did not impact the individual's life to the degree that change does today. For example, I recently reviewed the psychological literature regarding mHealth (using apps and mobile devices for health issues) and what I noticed was that articles from as recently as 2008 could not predict how we would be using apps today! We are living in a time of revolutionary change.

However, what is exciting can also be frightening, confusing, and stressful. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to resist change. And some people find change more difficult than others. Even minor changes can be disconcerting for those people.

In particular, people who have anxiety or depressive disorders have more difficulty than most with change. I can't necessarily say that learning to tolerate change will decrease depression and anxiety; however, research has shown that psychological flexibility, the ability to adapt easily to change, does increase as CBT helps reduce depression and anxiety (Kashdan, 2010). It seems reasonable that psychological flexibility is related to how people think and as cognitive therapy addresses irrational thoughts the ability to tolerate the discomfort of change improves as well. Therefore, this article is about the thought process involved with changes and how to change that thinking.

The Concept of Psychological Flexibility

First, exactly what is psychological flexibility? Although psychological flexibility primarily refers to the ability to adapt to change, it encompasses a number of different aspects (Kashdan, 2010):

1) Recognizing and adapting to the demands of different situations. The more rigid someone is, the more he or she tries to apply the same solutions to different problems or events. However, what works in one situation may not be effective in other situations. Therefore, we need to be able to recognize when a situation calls for a different type of response and be able to adapt our behavior according. For example, I have treated many people who have suffered childhood abuse. Often, as a result, they expect certain behavior from others because that is what they experienced as a child. Part of therapy is to help them recognize that not all people are abusive and untrustworthy and to be able to identify the difference between people. Otherwise, they are likely to act in ways that will interfere with the development of healthy relationships.

2) The ability to change behavior when it interferes with successful functioning. Too often people want others or the situation to change rather than recognizing that they only have control over themselves and not others. The more we can be flexible in response to others or situations rather than demanding that things be different, the more satisfaction and success we are likely to experience. Helen Keller, blind and deaf from very young, said “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” In other words, the inability to accept the loss of one life experience prevents us from being able to see other possibilities.

3) Maintaining a sense of balance in life. For both mental and physical health we need to be able to manage stress. The best way to do this is to take care of our physical and emotional needs. In particular, we need to care for our bodies with proper nutrition, rest, and exercise. We also need a balance between recreation and work or other life purpose.

4) Consistency between our values and our behavior. Many times people experience regret or stress because they don't always act in ways consistent with what is important to them. Inflexibility or difficulty adapting their behavior based upon their beliefs can create emotional distress. For instance, someone may believe in the importance of family time but is unable to set limits on work time. As a result, they experience discomfort and stress due to the conflict between values and behavior.

The Inability to Tolerate Discomfort

Change involves loss and discomfort. Even a good change such as a desired new job may bring the loss of day-to-day interactions with former co-workers or the normal feelings of incompetence while learning something new or even changes in schedule. Too often we dismiss the losses and discomfort involved with change, especially good change. Yet, these potential losses and discomfort can greatly influence our decisions.

Interesting, those people with greater psychological flexibility also have a greater ability to tolerate the discomfort of physical pain. How can thinking differently change the experience of physical pain? Generally, the ability to take a more detached view of the pain experience changes the degree of suffering and improves the level of functioning. The ability to accept the pain and develop a more mindful approach to pain reduces the level of disability and distress (McCracken et al., 2013).

The ability to not respond impulsively to make ourselves more comfortable improves the ability to adapt emotionally and socially to situations (Sahdra, et al., 2011). Much of human behavior appears to involve the conflict between short-term alleviation of distress and long-term healthy functioning. For instance, if a person is craving an unhealthy food, that immediate distress can be eliminated by eating the food; however, the long-term consequence may be increased weight and poorer physical health. Or, if may feel better to stop a child's crying by giving him/her a treat, but it may lead to more tantrums and difficult behavior.

Therefore, it is important for healthy functioning to determine what may be best for the long-term rather than choosing immediate satisfaction of discomfort. The ability to tolerate discomfort seems to distinguish between those who are happy, successful, and content and those who are not. The problem, however, is that those who are not successful and satisfied often believe that their dissatisfaction is because they don't have enough comfort and pleasant things in their lives. They don't understand that the pleasantness of life appears to be related to the ability to tolerate discomfort and to accept the unpleasant things. Researchers Sahdra and colleagues (2011) showed that intensive meditation with training to not react impulsively can improve healthy functioning.

Adaptability and Success

The ability to handle changing circumstances appears to be related to more positive outcomes. Researchers found that the ability to adapt could predict success in high school beyond what could be predicted by intelligence or previous achievement. Not only that but more adaptable students had more ambitious plans for the future, enjoyed school more, were more engaged in the classroom, and were less likely to quit when challenged. These students also experienced less psychological distress and greater well-being (Martin et al., 2013).

What this means is that being able to accept and cope with change can lead to success, satisfaction, and greater well-being perhaps even more so than life circumstances or personal characteristics such as intelligence. Learning to develop psychological flexibility can be critical to improving overal life circumstances.

Can Adaptability Be Changed?

For people who have more inflexible styles and have difficulty coping with change, it may seem that this style is a core part of them that is resistant to change. Although it may take some work to develop a greater ability to adapt, it certainly is possible.

Promising research involving people with anxiety disorders showed that psychological flexibility increases for those involved in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It is believed that not only the active work of changing thinking promotes flexibility but also the behavioral components such as mindfulness and exposure therapy can increase ability to adapt (Kashdan, 2010). Therefore, we can consider psychological flexibility to be a learned behavior although there may be some people who have a more innate inflexibility (i.e. Asperger's Syndrome).

How to Become More Flexible

The primary methods used in CBT that can help address psychological flexibility and the ability to cope with change are cognitive restructuring, mindfulness training, and exposure therapy. The effectiveness of each of these may vary according to the needs of the individual. It is best to have a professional consultation to develop an effective plan.

1) Cognitive restructuring. Cognitive therapy involves changing the typical thought patterns that cause maladaptive behavior. This is referred to as restructuring. The primary irrational thinking styles that can be problematic for coping with change include: negative evaluation, catastrophic thinking, shoulds, generalizing, internal control, and emotional reasoning.

Negative evaluation is the tendency to see the negative aspects of a situation or of others and to expect negative outcomes. Therefore, with changing circumstances it is the belief that the change will result in something bad even if the change itself might be considered good. To change this thinking it is important to recognize that negative evaluation is an assumption not necessarily based in reality. By doing so, you can evaluate the evidence for the assumption and tell yourself what to expect realistically. Sometimes this might mean obtaining additional information to help determine the reality.

Catastrophic thinking, an assumption as well, is a more extreme form of negative evaluation. It is the tendency to expect the worst possible outcome. To challenge this thinking it is important to recognize the possibility of different outcomes and that the worst possible outcome may not have a high probability. Again, it may take some effort to obtain additional information regarding the actual probability.

Shoulds are demands that you place on yourself, others, and the world. Almost by definition they tend to be inflexible. Certainly, some things in life fall in the category of shoulds but most things do not. Therefore, it is important to determine what is necessary and what is an unreasonable demand. For instance, if you are starting a new job and you have the belief “I should know this so I shouldn't ask questions” you are likely being unreasonable and the result is more likely to be negative. By identifiying and letting go of unreasonable demands we are able to cope better with change.

Generalizing is the tendency to believe that if something occurred previously it is likely to occur again. It is particularly dangerous to generalize failure because it increases the expectation of failure in the same or similar situations. To address generalizing it is necessary to recognize change as a catalyst for new outcomes some of which can be positive rather than assuming that the previous negative outcomes will recur.

Internal control can be beneficial in many situations, but when it comes to change, the belief that you should be in control of the outcome no matter what can set you up for failure. Thus, people with a strong need for personal control can have a great deal of difficulty with change due to the unknown nature of change. They may not always be able to prepare when something is unclear or unknown. To manage this need for control you need to accept other outcomes which are not under your control. It can be helpful to recognize that other outcomes are potential successes as well. Just because something isn't under your control doesn't mean it will be bad.

Emotional reasoning is the belief that if you feel something, it must be true. With change people often feel out of sorts, confused, or distressed because they are dealing with the unknown, the unpredictable. The tendency with emotional reasoning is to believe that because you feel bad it must mean that the change is bad. This is not always true! Change can be good but still feel bad because it disrupts our routine and our ability to predict. Therefore it is important to evaluate the change independently of how you feel. Don't accept the feelings at face value.

The Cognitive Diary is a particularly useful tool to help identify and change these thinking styles. Once you have identified the thinking and developed some coping statements you need to strengthen those statements through repetition—reading, writing, or saying them again and again to yourself.

2) Mindfulness. As people train to develop greater mindful awareness they begin to recognize at an experiential level that negative feelings are due to dwelling on and rehearsing the negative thoughts, beliefs, and predictions of outcomes. As we learn to accept uncritically all experience we develop greater tolerance of discomfort.

I believe that mindfulness is also indirectly changing our thinking. As we learn that we can tolerate even uncomfortable experiences we are likely to reduce the negative evaluation and catastrophic thinking styles.

3) Exposure therapy. Many people with psychological inflexibility will avoid situations that create discomfort. The result is usually increased fear and dissatisfaction. However, if instead, they learn to deal with these situations, they are likely to develop a greater belief in their competence as well as reduced negative expectations.

Exposure therapy helps to confront the situations that are being avoided in a systematic way. This type of treatment particularly requires professional assistance because when done wrong it can increase the fear and avoidance.

Biglan, A., Flay, B.R., Embry, D.D. And Sandler, I.N. (2012). The Critical Role of Nurturing Environments for Promoting Human Well-Being. American Psychologist, 67, 257–271, DOI: 10.1037/a0026796.

Gloster, A.T., Klotsche, J., Chaker, S., Hummel, K.V. And Hoyer, J. (2011). Assessing Psychological Flexibility: What Does It Add Above and Beyond Existing Constructs? Psychological Assessment, 23, 970–982.

Kashdan, T.B. (2010). Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 865-878.

Martin, A.J., Nejad, H.G., Colmar, S. and Liem, G.A.D. (2013). Adaptability: How Students’ Responses to Uncertainty and Novelty Predict Their Academic and Non-Academic Outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 728–746.

McCracken, L.M., Gutierrez-Martinz, O. and Smyth, C. (2012). “Decentering” Reflects Psychological Flexibility in People With Chronic Pain and Correlates With Their Quality of Functioning, Health Psychology, 32, 820–823.

Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Mangun, G.R., Lavy, S., Wallace, B.A. And Saron, C.D. (2011). Enhanced Response Inhibition During Intensive Meditation Training Predicts Improvements in Self-Reported Adaptive Socioemotional Functioning, Emotion, 11, 299–312.

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