When stretching comes to mind the first thing that usually pops out in our heads is yoga, Pilates, warming up for gym sessions, or anything related to physical exercise. The ones that incorporate some type of physical activity in our weekly schedule, we are more or less familiar with body stretching. It releases stress, it increases flexibility, it improves body posture and helps with pain relief.
But what about mind stretching or to put it in a more scientific way, what about cognitive flexibility? I guess we have never thought of trying mental upward and downward facing dog, triangles, warrior poses with our minds!
Our mind is like a muscle, the more diverse ways that we use it, the more flexible it becomes. With practice and awareness, we can all begin to develop a more agile mind which helps us to live more resilient, creative and fulfilled lives.
But we are not taught to think like that; society embraces a more rigid way of thinking; a “black and white” approach. This approach can help us release stress by having more structured thoughts and taking decisions faster but it definitely doesn’t help us evolve and grow.
Let’s consider the opposite: cognitive inflexibility or being close-mindned. It is a rigid way of thinking and it is common to people what don’t accept others’ opinions or they have the “my way or the highway” approach; their opinion is only the right one. Conventionally, when we’re talking about close-minded individuals, we’re referring to those who reject other people’s perspectives, approaches, and ideas so that they can remain ‘enclosed’ in their own ideas and perspective. These are individuals who attempt to adapt the world to their own minds (not the other way around!)
This is why developing cognitive flexibility is extremely important for our mental well being. It is related to our perceptions, emotions, actions and even our deepest motivations.
A change of environment, attitude or behavior will also influence the way in which we think. When we are able to make that mental shift without remaining stuck in a particular mindset, we’re demonstrating mental flexibility. By stretching our minds we become more susceptible to change, openness and possibility.
In these moments, when we are stuck in a vicious circle of thoughts, if we have developed a flexible mind, we can adapt our thinking and consequent actions in a way that will boost our inner resilience and our ability to solve complex problems.
Alright, so it’s clear that cognitive flexibility is a state very welcome to achieve and everyone can get there with practice, patience and perseverance. But how is this state achievable anyhow? Here are some exercises that therapists of mental health suggest to try. So let’s grab our cognitive pants and get ready for some stretching!
- Changing our Context
Modifying our physical environment and introducing some change will make our minds shift. Take a vacation, change the route you come home from work. Take a coffee break. If you work from home, grab your laptop and go out to a discover a nice new cafe.
2. Adopting a new hobby or trying something new
In a study led by Wilma Koutstaal, older adults who participated in a variety of novel and stimulating activities over a three-month period demonstrated a significant gain in creativity, problem-solving abilities and other markers of ‘fluid intelligence’ when compared to the control group. So start dance classes, jiu jitsu, learn a new recipe, engage in a new DIY home project, pick up a new language. This novelty enhanced in taking up on a new activity, contributes to brain growth and mental flexibility.
3. Reconsidering our thoughts and words.
By connecting your mind with the words you use, helps reevaluate the quality of your thoughts and words. By becoming more aware of what you think and say, you don’t attach to or lock into one limited way of thinking. Monitor your inner self talk and change it to more healthy communication with yourself. This will also change the way we communicate with others. Dispute the thoughts and words that don’t serve you. Then, substitute them with more productive ideas and phrases.
4. Being more spontaneous
Surprise yourself by changing something in your routine. If you enjoy walking, try biking for a little bit. If you are an avid water sports person, try some walk in the mountain. Go to a cafe and talk to some person that you find appealing and brings some positive energy to you.
5. Mixing up the thoughts pattern.
Creative and innovative ideas usually arise following periods of both focused thought and diffused attention. So, allow time to concentrate on challenges or projects both in a deliberate manner and also in an unfocused way while you are doing something else.
Stretching our minds is not as difficult as it may sound. Practicing the above exercises as well as other stuff based on your guts feeling, will not only help your brain to grow in agility and flexibility, but they should also leave you feeling more resilient, creative and far more confident about accomplishing more of your most intimidating personal goals.
Mental flexibility is not arbitrary or whimsical but is more a balance between control and spontaneity. When we’re mentally agile, we do pursue goals, but those goals will often be more flexible — alongside the approach that we take towards fulfilling them.