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Transform Anxiety and Increase Psychological Flexibility with 6 Body-Based ACT Strategies

December 17, 2020

If there’s one word that best describes what people are feeling right now it’s uncertainty. We are stressed, overwhelmed, and waiting for the next painful shoe to drop. Your ability to be psychologically flexible just may be the key to surviving this challenging time. When you are psychologically flexible you: Notice your thoughts without being […]

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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If there’s one word that best describes what people are feeling right now it’s uncertainty. We are stressed, overwhelmed, and waiting for the next painful shoe to drop. Your ability to be psychologically flexible just may be the key to surviving this challenging time.

When you are psychologically flexible you:

  • Notice your thoughts without being pushed around by them
  • Allow and accept difficult internal experiences instead of running from them
  • Move in the direction of what is meaningful and important to you

As Steven Hayes writes in his book A Liberated Mind, Psychological Flexibility training is helpful for everything from coping with illness and disability, nurturing healthy relationships, and overcoming addiction. And recent studies show having psychological flexibility at the time of COVID-19 can mitigate feelings of depression, anxiety, and social isolation. It can help us be better parents.

You can become more psychologically flexible with daily practice! Here are some simple body-based practices that will increase your psychological flexibility right now:

 

1. START WITH YOUR FEET — BE PRESENT. When I teach tree pose in yoga, I start by asking students to imagine “growing roots” from their feet that extend down to the center of the earth. A tree with deep roots is less likely to fall over in big winds. With your feet rooted, you are less likely to fall over by life’s turbulence. Being grounded in the present moment allows you to be more psychologically flexible. In the present moment, you see your thoughts, your behaviors, and the world around you more clearly. You can also make the subtle flexible adjustments needed to respond to life’s inevitable changes and stressors.

  • Stand up. Pay attention to your feet. Notice the sensations in your big toes, your arches. Notice where your feet make contact with the ground. Imagine your feet growing roots down to the center of the earth. Feel yourself planted in the here and now.

 

2. CONTACT YOUR HEART — CONNECT TO VALUES. Your values are qualities of action you take that demonstrate your caring — like being kind, being curious, or being brave. Living by your values means acting in ways aligned with what matters most to you.

  • Move your attention to your heart. Feel, in your heart, what is important to you? What matters most? Notice the feelings, sensations, longings, images that arise when you ponder your values.

 

3. NOTICE YOUR HEAD — DEFUSE THOUGHTS. Another key process in developing psychological flexibility is being able to notice your mind without being kicked around by it. Your mind is constantly producing thoughts, rules, and ‘shoulds’ that can lead you to be an inflexible “mind follower.”

  • Notice the content and quality of thoughts in our head right now. Notice what’s happening in your head like you would watch a stream of cars along a highway. If you were to describe the quality of your thoughts as traffic, what would they be like today? Gridlock? Rush-hour? Slow country drive? What about the content of your thoughts? Anxious? Problem-solving? Ruminating? Step back and just notice.

 

4. ZOOM OUT WITH YOUR EYES — TAKE PERSPECTIVE. When we are stressed, our attention narrows to threat and threatening stimuli. It makes sense evolutionarily to be on alert when in danger. But having narrowed attention in this way limits us from seeing different perspectives and taking in the grander view. It keeps us focused on ourselves in an egocentric way. Taking perspective allows you to be more psychologically flexible by shifting you away from stories about yourself. Now you can see your problems from another view, as interconnected to a greater whole.

  • Try getting flexible with your eyes. Look at the horizon. Look at a bird, a building or a tree far away. How does your perspective change when you see yourself as part of a larger whole?

 

5. OPEN YOUR ARMS — PRACTICE ACCEPTING. When we feel overwhelmed and stressed we often brace against emotional discomfort or do what we can to avoid pain. But when we push against pain, we often experience more suffering (what we resist persists!). We create new problems by trying to run from the pain we don’t want to have. Try accepting and allowing with your body instead.

  • Open your arms and hands to the side like you’re offering to give someone a hug. Take a posture of “embracing” what is. Offer this stance of accepting, allowing, and opening towards all of your inner experiences, even the difficult ones. Invite your discomfort, stress, anxiety, and pain in, with kind, open arms.

 

6. MOVE YOUR WHOLE BODY — TAKE COMMITTED ACTION. To be psychologically flexible means you act in ways that line up with your deepest values. Committed Action involves taking daily steps and actions that create a life of vitality and meaning.

  • You’ve planted your feet, connected with your heart, gotten some space from your thoughts, taken perspective with your eyes, and accepted with your arms. Now it’s time to get moving with your whole body. Where are your values pointing you? What is a move that would line up with what matters in this moment? Go ahead, move your whole body, and take that step!

 

Instead of being bogged down or consumed by stress and anxiety, or running from your feelings by doing things that make you more miserable in the long-term, use the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practices to pivot toward what matters most, right now. You can do this by noticing your thoughts, without being consumed by them, allowing your feelings to show up without running from them, and moving your body in the direction that your heart knows is best.

Download my free infographic 6 ACT Strategies for Transforming Anxiety & Increasing Psychological Flexibility. Save this in a place you visit frequently (e.g., bathroom mirror, refrigerator, mobile phone lock screen) so you can practice becoming Psychologically Flexible.

I hope you found this post helpful. Share it with a friend who you think would want to increase their own Psychological Flexibility.

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  1. […] you want to “try on” what it means to be psychologically flexible right now, check out my 6 body-based movement strategies. If you’re more of a journaling type, watch this video of a daily journaling […]

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