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How Practicing Cognitive Flexibility Reduces Excessive Anxiety

Updated on March 6, 2017

Understanding the causes of anxiety

You might not remember when the first time your anxiety started, but it must have been an important situation that has left a powerful impact on your personality. The thing that ”jumpstarts” your anxiety is usually an event that you had a very strong emotional reaction to whether you remember it or not. The first time your anxiety was triggered your mind has probably formed a strategy to protect you from experiencing the same event again in your life. That is how brains are biologically hardwired. Exactly the same mechanism is what stops us from entering dangerous situations that can be life -threatening. Sometimes that mechanism can have a negative effect and some negative thinking patterns can start to develop that are tied to a certain situation, person or place, depending on what your object of fear is.


In people who suffer from anxiety, the same negative thinking pattern repeats itself almost every time they experience their anxiety. So, why do we need to pay more attention to these negative thinking patterns? Because we can actually influence them, by using different thinking techniques and tools. One of the most beneficial exercises out there is practicing cognitive flexibility.

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility in psychology is defined as the mental ability to switch between thinking about two concepts, to think about multiple concepts simultaneously and to switch cognitive sets to adapt to new environmental situations.

Studies have shown that people who have a tendency to be cognitively inflexible are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder in their life because they are more prone to being stuck on the same rigid way of looking at things or to be fixated on a particular set of thoughts. In other words, the more you are able to switch between different points of view and ways of looking at things, the less likely you are to develop and maintain negative thinking patterns that feed and maintain your anxiety. But, is it possible to increase our cognitive flexibility? It turns out that there are a handful of things that you can do to become more cognitively flexible and be more mentally equip to adapt to new and changing situations and stimuli.

Anxiety First Aid

A survival mechanism as known as "fight or flight" is hardwired is to our biological system, and it may cause some dramatic physical reactions like sweating, trembling, palpitations, shortness of breath, sickness or hyperventilation. However, the effects of anxiety, although may be perceived very dramatically, and may easily cause even greater panic in the subject that is experiencing the condition, in reality, are usually lasting very shortly, at an average of 5 to 30 minutes. If you can be aware of the anxiety, do your best to disengage at least for a short while. Don't try to stop your emotions of physical reactions but at the same time don't react on them. Just let them pass trough your body. Just keep breathing, sit down or lay if it's an option. If you are dealing with someone else who is having an anxiety or panic attack, be as reassuring and calm as possible. If there is an obvious trigger to the panic attack, make sure you remove it or isolate it if possible.

Mindfulness, Thought Observation and Changing your Perspective

The mindfulness practice is very useful in cognitive psychology, and basically, it is a practice where you become aware of the present moment, observing any feelings or thoughts in a non-judgmental way. At this point you're probably asking yourself, how can I most effectively practice mindfulness? A good place to start is noticing your physiological changes like your heart rate, the feeling in your gut, breathing etc. Then start observing your thoughts. For example ask yourself: what am I thinking and telling myself right now? Observe your thoughts about the anxiety-provoking situation that is troubling you.

After you have successfully identified the most problematic point, try to find at least a few more ways to look at the same situation. For example, if you experience anxiety every time your friends are laughing and your thought pattern is ”they must be mocking me secretly and they don’t respect me as a friend’’, try to find a few more ways to look at the same situation like:

  • They could be laughing because of an inside joke
  • They could be laughing about someone else
  • They could be laughing at each other
  • They could be laughing at me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t respect me or like me as a friend, but they rather find my behavior funny, not my personality

Also, try to shift your perspective about the anxiety as an emotion in general. If you suffer from excessive anxiety you probably think that feeling anxious is always bad. In reality, we may sometimes identify some nervousness as excessive anxiety while it's completely normal to feel a little bit stressed out when facing new situations or challenging yourself to do more or better than what you have done in the past. This means that it can be a good thing, that you are very involved and engaged about something that is very important to you, or that you are simply growing and making new habits.

Practicing a shift of perspectives enhances your cognitive flexibility, and helps you form new neural pathways and connections that could even influence you on a neuro-biological level, so the next time you experience an anxiety- trigger your mind will be less likely to jump to the same old negative thinking pattern that feeds and maintains your anxiety.

Summary

  • Anxiety disorders can be triggered by bad past experiences.
  • Those experiences may cause us to view certain things in life in a very limited and rigid way (same old negative thinking patterns).
  • We can disempower and stop feeding those thinking patterns by practicing new ways of looking at things (practicing cognitive flexibility).
  • We can increase our cognitive flexibility by using mindfulness, observing our thoughts and shifting our perspectives.

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