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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Relieving anxiety with gentle stretching

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

There's relationship between being stuck in our struggles and psychological inflexibility. What's psychological inflexibility? Glad you asked!

According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) there are six components of psychological inflexibility:

  • Cognitive fusion

  • Focus on the past or future

  • Experiential avoidance

  • Attachment to self-concept

  • Unclear values

  • Unworkable action

When their powers combine... we tend to stay stuck in painful feelings, focused on what might happen or has happened, arrested by not wanting any more discomfort. From this position it's easy to get into self-judgment and continue on with not moving into integrity.

Maybe that's not quite what Captain Planet had in mind.

Perhaps you've been stuck like that. I know that I have. As you might have guessed, if you're a constant pattern-matcher, like many of my high-anxiety and neurodivergent peeps, there's an inverse to psychological inflexibility. The opposite of inflexibility? Flexibility. So what are those processes that help us move out of the struggle with our painful experiences and into lives that work for us?

The 6 core processes of psychological flexibility

  • Cognitive defusion

  • Focus on present moment

  • Experiential acceptance

  • Flexible perspective taking

  • Clear personal values

  • Committed action

How do we get flexible? With some gentle stretching! If you regularly spent all day in an office chair or on the couch and were trying to go from a daily movement average of zero minutes a day to the flexibility of gymnast... I would not recommend you bust out the intense splits and handsprings on day one. The results would likely be painful to experience and to watch. So, slow down.

A gentle stretch to work on your psychological flexibility is this: practice noticing your thoughts and feelings. This involves a change in position. Instead of Captain Planet is such a chode! It's "I notice I'm having the thought that... (Captain Planet is such a chode)". You may or may not also have a mind that generates judgmental thoughts about 90's cartoon characters. The point is that practicing this little shift, noticing your thoughts, is practicing a change in how we engage in our relationships with our inner experiences.

Will it end your anxiety? Well, no. You actually need your anxiety and working on accepting it is another little stretch in practicing psychological flexibility.

But then it's not resolved! That's interesting. If it's useful, or simply an experience, what if it's possible to have anxiety at times and having it is simply not a problem to solve? Where else, if you weren't trying not to solve your feelings like equations, might you put your energy?

You might notice that all these six component processes are linked. For now, just work on one. Take a breath and notice your thoughts.

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