How flexible is your thinking?

How flexible is your thinking?

Do you trust everything your brain tells you?  Or are you open to weighing up the validity of your thoughts?  Can you play around with the “truths” your mind comes up with?

Learning to challenge your own thoughts leads to more flexible thinking styles which is important for psychological health1-3.  On the other hand, research shows us that having a more rigid, inflexible thinking pattern is linked with more rumination (thinking things over and over in an unhelpful way) which is a key predictor to depression4 and sleep disturbance issues5.  Therefore, when we’re more open to testing the validity of our thoughts, the more flexible our thinking becomes and the healthier our perspectives on various situations can be.

Finding it hard to believe that not everything your brain tells you is true?  Try out this simple thought experiment to test our hypothesis – close your eyes and think of yourself as a polar bear.  Really picture it.  What can you see, what can you smell, what can you feel as you become this big white polar bear?  Picture your big hairy white fur, your lumbering body, walking around on all fours, clawing at fish with your mighty paws.

Ok now open your eyes.  Are you a polar bear?  Chances are, probably not.  But for those few moments, you thought you were.  So, might it be true that not all thoughts are truths?

Here are a few examples of rigid cognitive (thinking) distortions which can be particularly difficult to challenge:

All-or-nothing thinking: thinking in terms of extremes with an inability/unwillingness to see shades of grey

Overgeneralisation: applying one negative experience to the whole experience (i.e., getting one poor work performance review and concluding that you are a terrible human being)

Catastrophizing: exaggerating the importance of things (i.e., running late for a work meeting and convincing yourself that you will be fired as a result)

Minimising: diminishing the importance of things (i.e., winning a personal award but convincing yourself it was really the team’s effort)

Personalisation: the belief that all events relate back to you in some way (i.e., a friend tells you they didn’t enjoy their brekkie at brunch and you convince yourself you’re to blame)

Are you engaging with any of these rigid thought patterns?  How they make you feel?

One simple technique to help you get out of these mind traps is to weigh up the evidence for the thought versus the evidence against it – you can even put the evidence into percentages (i.e., 40% for, 60% against) to give you some hard numerical data to help you look at your thoughts more objectively.  Even if you land on the same conclusion, that you are to blame for your friend’s bad avocado on toast, the very fact that you took the time to examine your thoughts means you’re willing to see things from various perspectives – the essence of psychological health.



1 Schultz ,P. & Searleman, A. (2002). Rigidity of thought and behavior: 100 years of research. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr 128(2), 165–207.

2 Kashdan ,T. B. & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clin Psychol Rev 30(7), 865–878.

3 Meiran, N., Diamond, G. M., Toder, D., & Nemets, B. (2011). Cognitive rigidity in unipolar depression and obsessive compulsive disorder: Examination of task switching, stroop, working memory updating and post-conflict adaptation. Psychiatry Res 185(1–2), 149–156.

4 Whitmer, A. J. & Banich, M. T. (2007). Inhibition versus switching deficits in different forms of rumination. Psychological Science 18(6), 546–553.

5 Thomsen, D. K., Mehlsen, M. Y., Christensen, S., & Zachariae, R. (2003). Rumination—relationship with negative mood and sleep quality. Personality and Individual Differences34(7), 1293-1301.