Cognitive Flexibility

The tardigrade, aka “water bear,” is one of the most resilient animals ever discovered. Tardigrades are microscopic, eight-legged, segmented creatures discovered back in 1773, but only recently are scientists beginning to understand its capabilities. They have been known to go thirty years without food or water. Tardigrades can resist freezing temperatures close to absolute zero (−458 °F; −272 °C) all the way up to a blistering 300 °F; 150 °C. They can survive pressure six times greater than that in the Mariana Trench, radiation hundreds of times higher than what any human could survive, and in the vacuum of space.

Why would I be providing you with a biology lesson about a microscopic creature in a discussion about self-care? We can learn a life lesson from these little guys. What makes the tardigrade so resilient to extreme conditions has been its adaptability. Its biological makeup contains the flexibility for it to thrive in nearly every environment.

Think about how many times you talked yourself out of a situation, felt “stuck,” or were your own worst enemy. Our brains sometimes act as our biggest obstacle, especially when stress hits. This phenomenon is considered “cognitive inflexibility” or “rigid thinking.” The brain fixates on specific thoughts or ideas, having difficulty switching between them. It does not matter how irrational or unreasonable they might be. It builds up to the point of rumination or obsession. The brain shuts itself down to considering alternatives that might challenge the thoughts. It prevents its host from understanding others’ perspectives or even listening to what they might have to offer. Conflict rises between this rigid internal structure with an inability to adapt the ever-changing environment. Appropriate problem solving and decision making abilities go out the window.

This is where cognitive flexibility steps up to the plate. Cognitive flexibility allows an individual to move quickly from task to task (or thought to thought) or even entertain multiple ideas simultaneously. It accounts for a variety of problem solving strategies. It directly combats the aforementioned consequences of rigid thinking.

Let’s look at some of the common reasons for cognitive inflexibility and how each one can be challenged with cognitive flexibility:

Fear of being overwhelmed. Foremost, relax and ensure that your emotions are in check. Emotions can cloud any logical thought. Use your coping skills. Take a deep breath. Use distraction. Take a walk. Exercise. Play a video game. Once you are in more relaxed state, pace yourself. Break down the task into smaller steps. This way it will not seem as daunting. You will also feel more accomplished after completing each step.

Fear of disorganization. Fall back on structure and routine. Knowing what approach you have towards a situation enhances your problem solving abilities, provides a sense of control, and makes you feel comfortable. Make a plan and stick to it.

Fear of new and unfamiliar. Every day presents us with new, unfamiliar territory. Some of the best things happen from taking risks. Remind yourself of how you handled, managed, and ultimately survived these situations. Also, keep in mind what you learned from past experiences and even the positives that came from them.

Fear of ambiguity and uncertainty. Do your best to avoid “black and white,” “either/or,” “right or wrong” thinking. The world is much more complex than two options, and we will never have total control. Look at the alternatives. Achieve a basic level of acceptance towards the unknowns. Life is never totally predictable.

Old habits. It is difficult to change a thought process or behavior that you have been doing for possibly decades. When it comes to developing new habits, practice makes perfect. Keep at it. If you skip a day or two, get back on track. Reward yourself for engaging in the new habit too even with a simple “good job” or pat on the back.

Be one with your inner tardigrade.

-The Caring Counselor


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