Practicing Cognitive Flexibility to Transform your Thoughts

December 19, 2019

Practicing Cognitive Flexibility to Transform your Thoughts

Cognitive flexibility is considered one of our executive functions.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia Department of Psychiatry summed it up as:

“Changing perspectives or approaches to a problem, flexibly adjusting to new demands, rules or priorities”  

Thus, you can imagine it is an important skill in choosing and continuing recovery.

Addiction and mental illness are correlated with impaired executive functioning. Substance abuse, poor treatment adherence, and increase the likelihood of acting on impulse are all related to the decline in these abilities.

But, while many of the core areas are of much focus and growth in childhood, we can still work to boost and rebuild these functions through recovery.

Here are four ways to start increasing your mental flexibility:

1) Use “and” 

It’s not uncommon for black-and-white thinking patterns to create division in our brains.

One of the best ways to make the shift is by switching the word “but” for “and” in our thoughts and conversations.

Rather than:

“I want to recover and move forward from my addiction, but it’s just so difficult.”

We sub-in and try-on another version:

“I want to recover and move forward from my addiction, and I know it will be difficult.” 

Rather than toxic positivity, this is simply bringing in realistic and attainable ideas to the forefront. More so, it doesn’t invalidate any feelings.

We’re not saying it won’t be difficult, we aren’t pushing that to the side, we’re simply considering that those two things are not a this-or-that choice. 

As is true in dichotomous thinking, a challenge for those that don’t normally live in the grey, two things can be true at the same time. There isn’t always a right and wrong, always or never. 

It may be simultaneously true that you see no way to stop using substances, and that you will also make the call to talk to a treatment center.

If you wait for those “but” phrases to not be true or present, you’ll likely be stuck. We acknowledge the reality, though not always truth, of our thoughts and find a way to move forward.

2) Give a name to thoughts and feelings

Just as thoughts aren’t always true, sometimes we have feelings and thoughts that feel all-encompassing. 

Creating some space between you and that internal dialogue can help flexibility feel more attainable.

Try starting with:

“I’m having the thought that…”


“I’m feeling…..”

This means that rather than assuming you are truly a failure or worthless, we can see it for what it is, a thought or an underlying emotion like shame, fear, or disappointment.

Thoughts and feelings are temporary, changing often and throughout our day. We want to notice, but not become overly attached or stuck in them.

3) Be a fact-checker and poll the audience

Our brains are wired to find evidence to support what we believe and filter out the rest.

It helps to pause when anxious or depressive thoughts, intrusive or self-deprecating, and ask a few questions: 

  • What are the facts?
    • Think of yourself as a detective or journalist, what can you print or say in court? If it can’t stand or go in print, it’s not a fact
  • Would I say this to a friend or family member?
    • We are always harder on and more judgmental of ourselves than on others.
  • What is the worst-case scenario? And then what?
    • Our thoughts can keep us trapped in a cycle until we’ve worked out that being 5 minutes late to an appointment means we will be alone and a failure forever.
    • In heightened moments, our emotions rule. Ask:
      • If that happened, could I survive? Could I figure something out?
      • What’s the likelihood that will happen?
      • What will it mean about you and why does it matter?
  • Call/Text/Ask a support “What do you think?
    • While we don’t want to replace our thoughts, it can help to hear from others. Their perspectives may allow us to consider other things that could ALSO be true.
    • Just knowing there are other possibilities than the intense thought ruminating in your echo chamber can open up the chance to let that settle.

4) Recognize common distortions

Negative thinking, in particular, often spurs from ways our mind has learned to operate, even if it’s not an entirely accurate or helpful system.

Our thoughts may be morphed by patterns that aren’t uncommon in mental health or addiction challenges.

These might include: 

  • Black-and-white thinking
    • No in-betweens, one way or the other
  • Overgeneralizing
    • Assuming something is always going to happen and chunking experiences or thoughts together
  • Catastrophizing
    • Jumping ahead to assume the worst possible outcome
  • Personalization
    • Believing you are the source, blame, or reason for things that happen, even those that are quite clearly out of your control

There are several others, and sometimes more than one can be applicable at one time, but it’s less important to have a label and more relevant to acknowledge when our thoughts aren’t quite accurate. 

Challenging the thoughts might feel impossible – the first step is just to question when distortions might be hijacking our brains.

Boosting cognitive flexibility skills can help us see beyond negative thoughts that keep us stuck in past behaviors. Steps Recovery Center taps into proven therapeutic styles and works with you to shift, change, and grow. You may have doubts about treatment AND you can call today for a free and confidential conversation to learn more: 385-250-1701.

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