A psychologically flexible mindset refers to the ability to stay in contact with the present moment while responding flexibly to the situational demands in ways that reflect our personal values. Psychological flexibility is a skill that can be practised and developed. It is comprised of six components:
- Contacting the present moment
- Observing Self
- Cognitive defusion (distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories)
- Values (meaning and purpose)
- Commitment to action toward values (doing what matters)
Psychological flexibility is like a muscle. Muscles grow and become stronger through use, but active exercise is required to unlock their full potential; unused muscles will waste away. Similarly, mental exercises will improve our psychological flexibility!
Why should we cultivate psychological flexibility?
We all experience unpleasant feelings and thoughts in our daily life. They are part of life and the normal functioning of our minds. These experiences are often coupled with unpleasant bodily sensations, such as heart palpitations, nervousness, tightness in the chest, sweating, stomach complaints or the shaking of hands. In the context of their studies, students often face stressful situations, for example, while preparing for an exam, giving a performance or completing assignments that feel boring or overly challenging. They may be under pressure to perform or experience feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty as the demands placed on them increase.
We have relatively little influence over the unpleasant thoughts and feelings our minds produce. It is not easy to live with them, and often we just want to deny their existence. However, trying to control, reduce, or eliminate difficult feelings can lead us to a struggle that takes time and energy even though we cannot win it. We tend to avoid situations that evoke unpleasant feelings. This may lead to us to avoid things that are important to us and, instead, do things that go against our values and have a negative effect on our well-being. A general example that applies to students is procrastination, the difficulty of getting started on tasks although studies and academic progress are high on students’ list of priorities.
The way we encounter our difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, urges and bodily sensations is important. By practising psychological flexibility, we can learn to become aware of, face, accept and deal with unpleasant emotions and thoughts to lead active and meaningful lives that reflect our values. The active practising of psychological flexibility can help us prepare for everyday challenges and life’s struggles and prevent problems before they occur. Psychological flexibility also is linked with psychological well-being and lower levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety. For example, an increase in psychological flexibility has reduced the negative internal thoughts that university students have about themselves and the likelihood of days when they are unable to study or complete other daily chores due to psychological difficulties.
Developing conscious presence helps us to be present in the here and now and not be so easily swayed by our thoughts and emotions, such as worrying about the past or the future. Could you take a break from your day’s activities to try this breathing exercise? Alternatively, you can focus on your sensory experiences (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing) to anchor yourself to the present moment and increase a sense of agency in your life (try a ”Dropping Anchor”, 2 Minutes exercise by Russ Harris). You can also try a three-minute Body Scan exercise and notice how your body feels right now. By practising awareness skills in everyday situations when you are calm (such as when you are doing chores or taking a walk in nature), it is more likely that you will be able to tap into these skills when you find yourself in a more challenging situation.
Self-observation and releasing yourself from dominating thoughts
Our attention has a tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts and emotions, so that we are overly concentrated on threats and things that are largely beyond our control. Still, we can practice being aware of our thoughts and emotions and observe our inner world as if from the outside by adopting the perspective of an “unbiased” observer. By observing our inner world from a distance, we can broaden our perspectives and consciously make choices that are in line with our values and promote our well-being. The broadening of our perspectives can mean, for example, that we are able to perceive multiple options and solutions, observe the situation from different perspectives, find alternative interpretations, see the positive side, and identify several emotions and thoughts instead of the most powerful, dominant idea or emotion.
For example, we can learn to react to our own thoughts in a new way. Take a moment to reflect on the Clouds in the Sky metaphor:
Thoughts and emotions are like clouds in the sky.
Sometimes they are grey, heavy and dark and at other times soft and fluffy. They glide past, sometimes slowly and sometimes fast, each at the own pace and make room for one another and occasionally for the bright sky and sunlight.
There is room for them all in the sky.
We are not able to choose what is going on inside our minds at a given moment. However, we can let thoughts freely come and go. We can allow some room for them.When we get a negative idea into our head (such as “I’m stupid” or “I cannot get anything done”), we take these thoughts, created by our own minds, as absolute facts. Thoughts are ultimately only thoughts, and we can choose how we react to them.
When a negative thought pops into your mind next time (such as “I’m not good enough”), you can try the following exercise to distance yourself from this thought: Write down your thought and read it out loud for a couple of times. After a moment, continue by adding the phrase “I think that + the thought that you wrote down such as I’m not good enough”. Read the sentence out loud for a couple of times. Continue by writing down “I notice that I am thinking that + the thought that you wrote down such as I’m not good enough”. Read the sentence out loud for a couple of times. Can you notice a difference in how you feel? Does the original thought still seem as believable as before?
Clarifying values and making choices that reflect them
To identify and clarify our values – the things that are meaningful to us personally – we may need to take time and make a conscious effort. As we have a limited amount of time, we are continuously having to make choices on how to spend our time. We should occasionally take a moment to ask ourselves: What is important to me? Does my use of time reflect the things that are meaningful to me? What kind of person do I want to be?
Living by your values will increase your satisfaction with life. What small things could you do today to create the life you want for yourself? What practical steps can you take to live the life you want? How do you want to treat yourself and others? When you are making small everyday choices or deeds, ask yourself: does this bring me closer to or take me further away from my personal values (see the video by Russ Harris)?
Living by our values often requires us to do things that evoke difficult thoughts and feelings. For example, it is not always easy to start studying, and many students have difficulty getting started on tasks. Remember to make room for difficult experiences and practice accepting them as a part of life. Like the weather changes, so do our feelings and thoughts – sooner or later. The unpleasant feeling we sometimes get when we start working on a task will often disappear once we get getting into the swing of things. You can go back to the Clouds in the Sky metaphor or try this exercise (Noting your emotions by Kristin Neff, 18 minutes) to practice self-acceptance and the acceptance of difficult emotions.
How can I train my psychological flexibility?
It is great that you have got this far! You have taken time to practice your psychological flexibility.
In the future, the Student’s Compass will serve as a mental gym that is easily available to students and tailored to meet their needs. The Student’s Compass (Opiskelijan kompassi) is a research-based online well-being and life skills programme developed by researchers at the University of Jyväskylä. It will soon become available for students at Tampere University.
In the first phase of the pilot project, the Student’s Compass will only be available in Finnish. A slightly abridged, English-language version of the programme will become available in early 2022.
We hope you enjoy cultivating your psychological flexibility this spring,
Study psychologists Sonja, Taija, Hanna and Simo and intern study psychologist Ruut
This letter of well-being was written by Study psychologist Sonja Pelkonen.
We would like to thank Anna Naukkarinen for the English-language translation.
Peer support online:
Students’ Mental Health Day is on Thursday, 22 April, and it includes Nyyti’s campaign on social media #HelpWorthy . Nyyti ry promotes the mental health and learning ability of students. Nyyti’s Chat is a place for sharing ideas and experiences. Join in – because your mind matters!
27.4. from 3pm to 5pm: You have a right to help – but how to get it?
11.5. from 3pm to 5pm: Feeling lonely in your studies?
22.6. from 3pm to 5pm: After graduation, is there a future?
- Free short meditation exercises by Headspace
- Free Audio | ACT Mindfully by Russ Harris
- Free Videos | ACT Mindfully by Russ Harris
- Self-Compassion meditation and exercises by Kristin Neff
- The Clouds in the Sky metaphor is based on the exercise “Thoughts are like clouds” (”Pilvinä lipuvat ajatukset”, in Finnish)
- The “Distancing yourself from your thoughts” exercise is based on the activity “Three ways to practice self-observation”, in Lappalainen, R., Lehtonen, T., Hayes, S. C., Batten, S., Gifford, E., Wilson, K. G., Afari, N. & McCurry, S. M. (2004). Hyväksymis- ja omistautumisterapia käytännön terapiatyössä. (7. painos). SKT:n julkaisusarja: Hoitomenetelmien julkaisuja nro: 3.1. Jyväskylä: Bookwell Oy.
- Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap”
- Hayes, S & Smith, S. (2005) Get out of your mind and into your life: The new Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
- Face Covid. e-book authored by Russ Harris.
- Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Stress with The Happiness Trap Online Program
Read more about the Student’s Compass (in Finnish) – Stay tuned for more info in English!
Inspiration for this letter and the exercises from Oivamieli.fi.
Lappalainen, R., Lehtonen, T., Hayes, S. C., Batten, S., Gifford, E., Wilson, K. G., Afari, N. & McCurry, S. M. (2004). Hyväksymis- ja omistautumisterapia käytännön terapiatyössä. (7. painos). SKT:n julkaisusarja: Hoitomenetelmien julkaisuja nro: 3.1. Jyväskylä: Bookwell Oy.
Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1–25.
Heydari, M., Masafi, S., Jafari, M., Saadat, S. H. & Shahyad, S. (2018). Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Razi Psychiatric Center Staff. Open access Macedonian journal of medical sciences, 6(2).
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(4), 467–480
Levin, M. E., Haeger, J. A., Pierce, B. G. & Twohig, M. P. (2017). Web-Based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Mental Health Problems in College Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Behavior Modification, 41(1), 141-162.
Masuda, A., Feinstein, A. B., Wendell, J. W., & Sheehan, S. T. (2010). Cognitive defusion versus thought distraction: A clinical rationale, training, and experiential exercise in altering psychological impacts of negative self-referential thoughts. Behavior Modification, 34(6), 520-538.
Masuda, A., & Tully, E. (2012). The Role of Mindfulness and Psychological Flexibility in Somatization, Depression, Anxiety, and General Psychological Distress of a Non-clinical College Sample.
Renner, P., O’Dean, B., Sheehan, J., & Tebbutt, J. (2015). Days out of role in university students: The association of demographics, binge drinking, and psychological risk factors. Australian Journal of Psychology, 67(3), 157–165.
Räsänen, P., Lappalainen, P., Muotka, J., Tolvanen, A. & Lappalainen, R. (2016). An online guided ACT intervention for enhancing the psychological wellbeing of university students: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 78(C), 30-42.
Viskovich, S. & Pakenham, K. I. (2018). Pilot evaluation of a web‐based acceptance and commitment therapy program to promote mental health skills in university students. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(12), 2047-2069.