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How to stretch your thoughts

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

Most people know the importance of becoming and remaining physically flexible. But comparatively fewer people understand the importance of working on their psychological flexibility.

Nevertheless, psychological flexibility is very important for staying emotionally well and mentally sharp. It can enable us to be more effective problem identifiers and solvers, help us be more creative and innovation, and help us identify and realise opportunities.

What is 'mental flexibility'?

The term 'mental flexibility' refers to our ability to disengage from one task and engage in another or to attend to multiple foci at the same time. Someone who is mentally flexible will be able to learn at a faster pace, solve problems more creatively, and adapt and respond to new situations more effectively, which is why it’s so important in all areas of life.

Mental flexibility is also relevant to emotions, as people with low mental flexibility tend to be less adaptable in their emotional reactions, too, and this can be very problematic. Inflexible thinkers tend to be stubborn, oppositional, uncooperative, constantly worried, upset if things don’t go their way, or have conditions such as addictions, obsessive compulsive tendencies, eating disorders and even anger management problems.

Can you have a flexible or unflexible brain?

Interestingly, there is actually a basis in our brains for our different levels of mental flexibility. Using brain imaging we have found out that an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is involved in switching attention, tends to be overactive in people who have difficulty with mental flexibility. When it works well, it allows us to focus on something, disengage, and then shift to focus on something else. However, when it is overactive, there is a tendency for people to get stuck.

The good news is that even though there is a biological basis for mental flexibility, there are things we can do to improve.

How can we start to stretch our thoughts and increase our mental flexibility?

1. Question your thoughts: The first thing we can do it practice divergent thinking, which is when we deliberately try to think about things in an unconventional way. Divergent thinking is a type of thought that occurs in an organic and spontaneous manner, and is not premised on a limited set of choices, but rather on unlimited parameters. Studies have shown that it not only increases creativity, it is also linked to increased overall performance. A good way to get into divergent thinking is to practice perspective-taking, as this allows us to see things from another angle.

2. Write out thoughts and solutions: If we feel that we’re getting stuck on a particular thought or on seeing something a specific way, we can externalise our thoughts by writing them out, so that we can observe them with more distance, and then we can deliberately work on either possible solutions to resolve the thought or other ways of seeing something.

3. Do the things you do differently: Introduce change into your routines, for example, if you’re accustomed to going via the same route to work, look for a different route or consider going on the bus rather than driving. It can also help to do things in a new environment, for example if you usually exercise at the gym, mix it up by jogging in the park or riding your bike. Even doing small things, like sitting at a different spot at the table can help you forge and strengthen new thought pathways.

4. Do different things altogether: Whenever you experience something outside of your usual routine, learn new knowledge or skills, or meet new people, the brain forms new connections. Novel experiences have also been shown to engender dopamine release, which not only contributes to motivation but also facilitates forming new memories and learning new knowledge and skills. Meeting new people can also be a great way to question your beliefs and ideas.

5. Use nutrition and exercise to increase serotonin levels: the anterior cingulate gyrus has many serotonergic fibers, and there is some evidence that people who tend to be rigid in their thinking or behavior may have a deficit of serotonin. One of the ways to increase serotonin in the body is to increase your intake of L-tryptophan, which is the basic building-block of serotonin. You can do this by eating foods like chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, nut butter, eggs, and green peas. Exercise is another way to increase serotonin production. Exercise also increases your energy levels, reduces your worries, and can distract you from the repetitive thinking patterns that get stuck in your head.

I hope you use these 5 tips to give your brain a real work-out!

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