Resilience Resources Weekly: Cognitive Flexibility

by Katie Clare, Associate Director for Resilience Programs, University Life

Resilience Resources Weekly: Cognitive Flexibility

Southwick and Charney emphasize the role of cognitive flexibility through cognitive reappraisal for supporting increased resilience. Don’t be intimidated by that mouthful of intense-sounding words! The essence of this strategy is to consider setbacks and failures, such as doing poorly on a test or struggling to run a productive meeting online, as learning opportunities. In other words, this approach is about growth. The strategy encourages us to view challenges through a lens that allows us to identify the lessons learned through adversity, so we might come out stronger than we were before.

To find meaning in our struggles is a critical component of resilience because resilience does not ask us to ignore the unpleasant emotions of adversity. Resilience does not mean we suppress our emotional responses simply for the sake of being positive. We are, however, asked to be flexible in our thinking by developing greater familiarity with our emotions and our reactions, so we might better discern if our responses are reasonable. For example, in terms of the current circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak, it is reasonable to feel fear, anger, or sadness. However, if we utilize the strategy of cognitive flexibility through cognitive reappraisal as a response, we don’t get weighed down by these emotions. Instead, we aim to be flexible in working through them. In doing so, we develop our resilience.

Here are three ways to explore cognitive flexibility through cognitive reappraisal:

Emotion Wheels

Refine the vocabulary that you use to describe your emotions by exploring emotion wheels. You might begin with Robert Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel that builds out eight core emotions into greater specificity by identifying 24 possibilities. You might think you are feeling anger, but if you investigate the feeling, perhaps it’s closer to rage or annoyance. You might think you are feeling sadness, but if you investigate the feeling, perhaps it’s more like grief or pensiveness. These distinctions can help us to be more flexible in our thinking by helping us to see the range of emotions that are available to us.

Opposite to Emotion Action

Play with a strategy known as Opposite to Emotion Action. Assess your emotion, and when appropriate, respond with the opposite action. For example, if feeling anger over the current situation, try to tap into empathy to connect with the larger community. This might help you identify some good or at least some helpful perspective. For example, when you broaden your thinking to the larger community, you might be inspired by stories of neighbors supporting neighbors while also being mindful of social distancing. You might be encouraged that the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted inequities in new ways that might lead to more comprehensive solutions moving forward. Likewise, if feeling sad over the current situation, try to step outside of the natural, negative coping strategy of withdrawal and brainstorm ways to connect with others. Perhaps you can identify seven people to reach out to over the course of the week by texting, calling, or writing to one of them each day. Perhaps you can set up a virtual game night or coffee date. Perhaps you can step outside, breathe some fresh air, and soak up some vitamin D.

Lucy Church’s Ted Talk

Be inspired by Lucy Church’s Ted Talk in which she speaks not just about research on resilience but her personal experience of having to be resilient. You might consider the following:

* Church emphasizes a need for hope and action in response to her experience. Do you agree with her assessment that those are critical components of resilience? If so, in what ways have you engaged hope and/or positive action in difficult situations?    

* When Church speaks about benefit finding, she speaks to the core of cognitive flexibility through cognitive reappraisal. How are you already flexible in your thinking about challenging situations? When it comes to challenging situations, how do you remind yourself to be flexible in your thinking?

* Church describes her go-to strategy of identifying if something is helping or harming. In thinking about your current situation, what behaviors fall into the harming category? And, even more importantly, what behaviors fall into the helping category?  

* If resilience requires a willingness to engage in ordinary processes, how might you engage with resilience in your life today? What barriers exist to you doing so?