Flexibility: The Key to a Healthy Mind

I have always held that flexibility is one of the critical components in managing life well. All across the lifespan, flexibility is a contributing factor in healthy psychosocial functioning and developing and sustaining healthy relationships.

Flexibility itself implies an ability to bend, to move, and to change. Psychological flexibility then, represents one’s willingness and openness in responding to both the internal and external factors in one’s life. It provides us with healthier coping responses to the world around us.

This mental flexibility is the basis of cognitive restructuring. It is foundational to the healing process. Uncertainty is an existential reality of life. In some sense, nothing is perfect and life can be messy. But psychological flexibility provides us with the healing tools to respond to the uncertainty and messiness of life.

Cognitive restructuring is an important technique that helps us change the way we think, particularly those thoughts and beliefs that are negative and dysfunctional that keep us in unhealthy patterns of behavior. Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” What we repeatedly do is a result of how we think, and what we believe. A healthy mind facilitates adaptation and growth and prepares us for whatever life brings.

The Apostle Paul challenges believers to a kind of psychological flexibility, an open invitation to think and respond differently in the world: 

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, NLT)

We must be willing to adapt and respond to the uncertain realities of life. This is part of a healthy mind.
God knew that we needed psychological flexibility to live life effectively, so he created our brains with the ability to do so. This is great news! He made our brains “neuroplastic,” which is simply the ability for your brain to reorganize itself. Negative and dysfunctional thoughts do not have to have the final say.  The concept of neuroplasticity is more than just the ability of neurons and neuropathways to alter their behaviors and connections in response to experiences and changes in their environment – it also involves functional and structural categories. It is this ability that enables us to heal after traumatic brain injuries, cognitive impairments, and psychological trauma.

God has provided us with ways to help facilitate neuroplasticity and a healthy mind. Exposure to new experiences, new learning, and the creation of memories reflects the existence of neuroplasticity. We can retrain our thoughts and behaviors through many researched psychological approaches, including things like personal mantras, self- affirmations, use of scriptures in self-affirmations, use of prayer to confess and target negative thoughts, mindfulness techniques like meditation, guided imagery, and mental body scans.

God has created us with a tremendous ability to flex, to adapt, and to change. No wonder King David was in awe of our creation: “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous - how well I know it.” (Psalm 139:14, NLT)

Dr. Randolph Walters is Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology and Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, & Belonging.

This article was part of a series on Flexibility in the Fall 2021 edition of Eastern magazine. Read additional articles on Flexibility.