Psychological Flexibility: Go with the Ebb and Flow

​Stepping into a new year can feel exciting and overwhelming. Join Dr. Jim Jackson as he introduces us to psychological flexibility, which he calls the super power of super powers for mental wellbeing. He teaches us how to develop this type of flexibility and why it can help us go with the ebb and flow of life more easily.

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Bridgette Butler:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Bridgette Butler with Health Plus.  Today, our guest is Dr. Jim Jackson, Psychologist with the VUMC Critical Illness, Brain Injury, and Survivorship Center.  Welcome Dr. Jackson and thank you for joining us again today.

Jim Jackson, M.D.:  Thank you, Bridgette.  It is really lovely, as usual, to be with you today, so thanks for the opportunity.  

Bridgette Butler:  Absolutely.  Now, Dr. Jackson, we have heard quite a bit in the last year about topics like resilience, coping with stress and navigating change and today we are going to take a new approach towards mental wellbeing by talking about psychological flexibility.  Can you tell us what psychological flexibility is and how it is different from the topics that we have been hearing about?

Jim Jackson, M.D.:  I have been thinking about psychological flexibility a lot of late Bridgette.  We grapple a lot with what techniques and what characteristics are useful during this hard season we are in, and many psychologists believe that psychological flexibility is the super power.  It is the superpower or superpowers.  People with that trait, with psychological flexibility, what they are really good at doing is they are really good at being confronted with hard situations and finding novel and creative ways to cope with them.  So, they do not let those situations define them.  They are not overwhelmed by them.  They maybe daunted by them, but they find innovative ways to deal.  They find effective ways to cope.  They are flexible.  

Bridgette Butler:  How can psychological flexibility benefit us as we start this new year?  

Jim Jackson, M.D.:  If this new year is like the last two New Years, it is going to be a bit of a doozy.  You know, we are in the throws perhaps of a third wave of COVID.  People are worn down and discouraged and depleted.  I am hopeful about 2022, but I am worried that it will be hard.  So, psychological flexibility can benefit us tremendously because if we rely on it, if we nurture it and cultivate it, it is going to help us cope more effectively with the hard challenges we are facing.  Here is an example.  You have two trees in your yard.  We have many more than that.  You have got a big oak and you have a slender willow.  That big oak is rigid, right?  The wind comes, it breaks the tree in half.  The tree falls on your house.  It is a disaster, unpleasant, all of that.  That tree is rigid.  The willow is the sapling.  The wind comes.  That sapling bends in one direction, bends in another and it survives that.  So, that is not that different necessarily than how we are as people.  There are people that you know, and I know, people we have observed, people in our neighborhoods, our churches, whatever who have really hard things happen to them and they find a way to cope, right?  They find a creative way to make sense of things.  They find a way to reframe things.  They find novel ways to take the challenge on.  Those are flexible people.  They do better.  Their quality of life is better.  Their functional outcomes are better and that is what we want to foster, that flexibility.  We want people, simple stated, to be more flexible.  We equally want people to be less rigid.  Rigidity is not your friend, right?  We need to let go of rigidity.  

Bridgette Butler:  You mentioned that psychological flexibility is something that we can cultivate.  What are some simple practices that might help us develop psychological flexibility in our work lives and in our personal lives?  

Jim Jackson, M.D.:  One of the underappreciated traits that psychologist is increasingly talking about, but only really recently is curiosity, right?  We have a lot of negative connotations associated with curiosity.  Curiosity, it killed the cat, right?  Well, curiosity does a lot of really good things, right?  Curiosity, being puzzled, wondering, that often helps us arrive at new strategies, different ways of engaging problem.  So, one thing I would say is when people are faced with big challenges, maybe even immovable ones, let's start by getting curious, right?  Let's not start by making assumptions.  Let's not start by panicking which really reduces your cognitive feel.  Let's step back and be curious.  That would be one thing.  Let's engage things with humility.  Second idea, right.  Let's not assume that we know everything there is to know about this.  Let's imagine that there could be ways out of it, right, that could workable.  Let's recognize too that we can tolerate more distress perhaps than we think we can.  Distress tolerance, another concept that no one really wants to talk much about, but it is really important, right?  We are strong, right?  We have been steeled by the pandemic over the last couple of years.  We have been made gritty.  We can do hard things, right?  So that is all under the rubric of psychological flexibility.  The other thing I would say is let's surround ourselves with people with similar values, right?  Let's surround ourselves by flexible people.  Let's follow their example as they can follow ours.  

Bridgette Butler:  Those are great examples of ways that we might be able to grow our own psychological flexibility which is so necessary during this time.  Thank you so much Dr. Jackson for joining us today and giving all of us all of these very helpful insights on psychological flexibility.  

Jim Jackson, M.D.:  Yes, so great to be here with you.  Let's stay flexible.  

Bridgette Butler:  Thanks for listening.  If you have a story suggestion, use the Contact Us page on our website at