Saturday, January 22, 2022

Getting Stuck; Understanding Psychological Inflexibility & Stress


Submitted Photo

As I discussed in earlier columns, like your computer, internet router, or any other complex machine that has multiple components and systems that interact with each other, your mind can freeze and get stuck. When this happens it is difficult to think clearly about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them.

When your computer and router freeze you can usually unfreeze them by shutting them off and then turning them back on. It is a little more difficult to get your mind thinking clearly again when it gets stuck. According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) theory, one of the things that contributes the most to your mind getting stuck is psychological inflexibility.

There are six main factors that contribute to psychologically inflexibility and getting stuck: (1) Lack of clarity of values; (2) Dominance of outmoded scripts and learning; (3) Cognitive fusion; (4) Attachment to the conceptualized self; (5) Experiential avoidance; and (6) Inaction, impulsivity, and rigidity. I’ll describe each one of these briefly and in my next column show you how you can use Rethinking to develop greater psychological flexibility and get unstuck.

Attachment to the Conceptualized Self

Your conceptualized self is the picture of yourself that your mind creates and tells you about in your self-talk. Your conceptualized self is at work when you say things to yourself such as, “I am not very smart (or attractive, or handsome, etc.),”  “I could never go back to college at my age,” or “I’d just die if I had to get up in front of the group and give a speech,” or “ I’ll never get married again, I couldn’t deal with having my heart broken again.”

In essence, your conceptualized self represents all of the images and dialogue your mind creates about your experience of living up until this point in your life. ACT theory refers to this way of describing yourself as self-as-content view. In other words you are nothing but the sum of all of your experiences. In many instances, the pictures and dialogue your mind creates about you are accurate and represent the objective reality of your life. In other cases however, they are not. Your mind distorts, embellishes, forgets, and attaches labels to your conceptualized self that create stereotypes for understanding and explaining who you really are. For example, when you stereotype yourself and say things like, “ I am not very smart” or “ I am not a very good athlete” it affects the way you view potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. This is especially true with new experiences that threaten these stereotypes.

Cognitive Fusion

Cognitive fusion is another name for over-identifying with parts of your conceptualized self. Your mind can fuse with all kinds of images and parts of the self. For example, I describe myself as “someone who runs” instead of “a runner.” As someone who runs, my running is just part of who I am. My conceptualized athletic self is someone who runs, kayaks, bicycles, and plays tennis. This allows me to put running into the perspective of being a part of who I am.

While it isn’t necessarily stressful or problematic to fuse with something like running, I’m sure you all know someone whose obsession with running has caused them all sorts of problems. Instead of reducing stress their running is actually a source of it. If they miss an occasional workout or don’t run fast or far enough they feel guilty, or anxious. If they don’t have the latest running shoes, workout clothes, hydration systems (aka water bottles) and gadgets to measure their time, speed, and distance they get stressed.

When you over-identify with one aspect of your conceptualized self other aspects suffer and this can limit your coping options. For example, if you are “a runner” and need a workout to burn off your stress but don’t feel like running you are stuck and have no other option for managing your stress-related tension and nervous energy.

Dominance of Outdated Scripts

Often, your mind fuses with outdated personal scripts. If you remember from previous columns, personal scripts are the lines of self-talk dialogue that your mind creates to describe something that happened to you in the past. Personal scripts become outdated when they no longer represent who you really are or are no longer helpful in meeting your goals and staying true to what you value.

For example, lots of people I’ve worked with suffer from negative self-talk related to messages their parents told them about never being good enough. They were never, “smart enough,” “tough enough,” “athletic enough,” etc. to satisfy their parents and were reminded of this constantly. Forty to fifty years later as successful adults they still get stressed when exposed to potentially stressful situations that trigger these outdated scripts.

It can be very stressful to feel trapped and controlled by outdated personal scripts that no longer represent who you really are but have such power over you.

Experiential Avoidance

A common response to fusing with outdated personal scripts is avoiding experiences because they make you feel uncomfortable. When you avoid experiences because they are linked to outdated images of yourself, it limits your potential and keeps you stuck in a rut. Always staying in your comfort zone is a safe way to live your life and avoid stress, but it also contributes to missing out on a lot of growth-enhancing experiences.

Inaction, Impulsivity, and Rigidity

The last three factors that contribute to psychological inflexibility are so inter-related that they are grouped together. Inaction, impulsive behavior, and rigidity are all related to values, goals, and commitments. If you are unclear about what you value in life it is hard to set clear goals and commit yourself to working towards them. It is easy to do nothing (inaction) or stick to what you’ve always done and resist change (rigidity). It is also easy to react the opposite way and jump at trying anything that sounds good without really thinking through how your actions will impact your longer-term wellbeing and stress.

Getting Unstuck by Becoming More Psychologically Flexible

There are six ACT-related strategies you need to learn to become more psychologically flexible, get unstuck, and conquer your stress; (1) Values Clarification, (2) Mindfulness, (3) Acceptance, (4) Commitment, (5) Self as Context and (6) Cognitive Defusion. In my next column I’ll show you how to start getting unstuck by using these strategies for Rethinking your stress. I’ll show you how to master each of these with easy-to-learn techniques I’ve developed for my clients and students.

Until next time, remember to Stress Less and Live More.

Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *