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Strategies to Improve Cognitive Flexibility

by edinburghtherapyservice
7 minutes read

“No matter how earnestly I try, I can’t rid myself of this persistent thought, and I find myself contemplating it for hours,” “In the end, I revert to repeating the same actions. The outcome remains the same, and I don’t see any improvement”… these instances vividly demonstrate how, at times, individuals tend to fixate on a rigid and singular viewpoint, engaging in repetitive behavioural patterns that don’t always lead to positive outcomes. This phenomenon is known as cognitive rigidity, reflecting a mental inflexibility or stiffness in thinking processes, where people may struggle to adapt or shift their cognitive strategies in response to changing circumstances.

Persisting in a state of cognitive inflexibility, where we cannot discern diverse options and persist in the same unyielding, ruminative thoughts without considering alternative perspectives, may lead us into an emotional abyss associated with challenges such as symptoms of anxiety or depression.

What is cognitive flexibility?

The opposite of cognitive rigidity is cognitive flexibility. Speaking of mental flexibility is speaking of change and evolution. Cognitive flexibility is the mental ability to adapt and transition between different cognitive processes or tasks. It involves shifting attention, changing perspectives, and modifying thinking patterns in response to evolving situations or demands. In practical terms, cognitive flexibility includes adaptability, problem-solving through diverse strategies, perspective-taking to understand various viewpoints, and openness to change by embracing new information and learning from experience to apply insights from the past to future situations.

Cognitive flexibility strategies

Below, we provide specific strategies that can help train the capacity for cognitive flexibility and mental adaptation:

Observe your thoughts: Take a more distant position from the situation, which will allow you to see it from a broader perspective and make it difficult for you to be carried away by more automatic and unconscious patterns that lead us to always act in the same way. From the observer’s standpoint, it will be easier for you to see different options to consider when deciding how to act.

Identify those personal attitudes that align with cognitive rigidity: At certain times, we all may become more rigid (for example, when we insist that something must be done in a specific way because otherwise, we believe it is poorly done). It is important to detect these moments and consider alternative perspectives.

Consider all the different perspectives: When confronted with challenges, our attention often narrows, fixating on specific facets of reality. This limited focus reduces our ability to perceive the complete picture. Take a moment to broaden your perspective by exploring various angles of the situation. Consider alternative explanations for the problem and identify potential silver linings amid the adversity.

Enlist different viewpoints: What other ways could you look at this situation? How might a friend interpret the situation? What about your parents? Imagine how your future, 90-year-old self would reflect upon this circumstance. By diversifying your outlook, you not only expand your understanding but also uncover hidden insights and possibilities that may have been overlooked in a more confined viewpoint.

Expose yourself to novelty and change routines: Seek out new experiences, whether it’s trying different foods, exploring new places, or meeting new people. Introduce variety into your daily routine. Small changes, like taking a different route to work or trying a new hobby, can motivate your brain to adapt and be more flexible. Novelty stimulates your brain and encourages it to think in different ways. 

Differentiate internal or situational attributions: When analysing situations, research suggests that people often overemphasise the significance of personal traits in explaining situations or others’ behaviour, neglecting situational factors and making several errors. In other words, we tend to think it is our fault when something happens and don’t take into account the situational or contextual factors that played a role.  Acknowledging this reality encourages greater caution, preventing us from presuming excessive intention behind others’ actions. 

Don’t take your thoughts and emotions as ultimate truths: Challenge automatic assumptions tied to thoughts and emotions. Ask yourself whether these thoughts accurately represent the situation or if there might be alternative interpretations. To help you with this, conduct a reality check by examining evidence supporting or contradicting your thoughts and emotions. This helps in grounding your perceptions in objective observations rather than subjective biases.

Stay curious: Cultivate curiosity about the world around you. Ask questions, seek answers, and maintain a lifelong attitude of learning. This keeps your mind open to new ideas and information.

Cultivating cognitive flexibility is a journey towards a more adaptable and resilient mind. By incorporating the strategies discussed, you can break free from the constraints of rigid thinking. Remember, the mind, much like a muscle, can be trained to be more agile and open to change. As we go through the difficulties of life, the ability to shift perspectives, adapt to new information, and approach challenges with flexibility becomes a powerful tool for personal growth and well-being.

Further reading

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