Psychological Flexibility

With many of us still working from home it can feel like our career progression has stalled. Combine this with the pressures of family demands on your time and it’s no wonder so many people are experiencing high levels of stress.

In the relatively ‘normal’ year of 2018, a study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of UK adults had been so stressed at some point within the previous 12 months that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. In August of this year, the Office for National Statistics published figures that revealed that rates of depression in adults have doubled during the pandemic. Stress is on the rise and we need to address it before it has a lasting impact on our personal and work lives.

As a coaching psychologist, I take a preventative approach to stress, aiming to encourage management before the point of burnout is reached. If balancing the demands of family life and career pressures whilst working from home has pushed you into the ‘grey space’ on the edge of burnout, there are certain areas I’d suggest you focus on.

The cornerstones of my proactive approach to building emotional and mental resilience are: emotional agility, understanding your own emotions and psychological flexibility. It is entirely possible to become more resilient to stress by learning how to reposition your thoughts and behaviours; changing how you view yourself and the world; and regaining control.

Emotional agility

We all have an inner voice in our heads: the voice of our emotions. Sometimes, this commentator speaks to us positively. However, all too often, it can be the voice of guilt, shame, self-doubt, self-recrimination and much more. If you’re in the grip of stress, you may feel there’s no way out when this negativity builds up in your internal discourse.

Becoming emotionally agile is the key to regulating these negative thoughts and feelings that, left to their own devices, will chip away at your happiness and self-esteem. Emotional agility is about much more than just trying to be positive all the time. It centres on learning to identify what you’re feeling in order to understand and regulate your emotions. By changing the way you view, interpret and accept your emotions this boosts your motivation and performance – on both a personal and professional level. It also improves how you manage change and face the unknown, a skill all of us need at the moment.

Understanding your own emotions

Sadly, how to understand emotions isn’t something that’s widely taught. However, gaining emotional awareness is an important life skill that will reshape how you react to the stress caused by unexpected change and other factors in your life.

Of course, learning how to understand your emotions won’t make them go away. The aim is instead to connect with your feelings so you can articulate them more easily, accept and regulate difficult thoughts, and build better relationships with friends, relatives and colleagues.

Psychological flexibility

This is perhaps the key area on which to focus. Being psychologically flexible means developing the ability to ‘unhook’ yourself from negative sensations and accept them for what they are, so you can direct your energy towards dealing with the here and now. By choosing your behaviours in line with the demands of the current situation and your personal values, you can stay focused on your purpose and longer-term goals, regardless of any unpleasant thoughts or feelings.

As the term ‘flexibility’ suggests, it’s all about learning to alter your perspective on the world and your own behaviour. That way, you can manage stress, people and situations effectively, whilst balancing conflicting needs, demands and desires. Sound like a challenge you’re facing?

It’s not just about being happy and having it easy, though! Psychological flexibility means equipping yourself with the tools required to successfully navigate the constant and unpredictable changes that life throws at you, so you can flourish and thrive through both the good times and the bad.

The table below illustrates the differences between psychological inflexibility and flexibility:

Which descriptions strike the loudest chord with you right now? If you find yourself resonating with the column on the left, how is that impacting upon your career and relationships?

Which of these areas could you take and address today to start developing your psychological flexibility? What changes can you commit to making this week to ensure you’re living fully in the present, or perhaps to gain some perspective on your situation by observing yourself from the outside?

In the face of ongoing uncertainty, don’t let yourself reach the ‘grey space’. Take preventative measures now to develop your emotional agility, your understanding of your own emotions and your psychological flexibility and watch yourself thrive, both personally and professionally, despite the challenges you’re facing at the moment. Developing your emotional resilience will leave you equipped to push your career forward even in these unsettled times.