Navigating Challenges Through The Power Of Flexibility

Roxana Samaniego, Ph.d. Director Of Clinical Services

"Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it." - Lao Tzu

We have just lived through a year and a half of extraordinary levels of uncertainty, and the stress and fear that surrounds dealing with a public health crisis. As students return to campuses across the country, college mental health and wellness professionals are charged with helping them navigate yet another transition where the only certain thing is that uncertainties lie ahead.

Of course, it’s normal to want certainty and predictability in our lives. We like knowing if we’re trying a new restaurant that it will have dishes we like. We rewatch our favorite movies or reread books because it can be comforting to know exactly what to expect. Some predictability mitigates the personal experience of stress, and we know that children thrive when their caregivers can provide a sense of consistency and predictability. But, despite our best efforts to plan and prepare, some things are still beyond what we can predict.

Our brains, hardwired to help us recognize threats in our environment, are trying to help us prepare for these unknowns by thinking through an exhaustive list of “what ifs.” Many of our students who are returning to in-person learning are imagining the same what ifs, such as:

What if I get sick at school?

What if we have to shut down again?

What if I’m awkward trying to meet people, and I don’t remember how to be around other people?

What if I never have a “normal” college experience?

What if I can’t handle college?

When we can’t know what will happen, our brains can get stuck here, becoming more controlling, rigid, or inflexible. We often get mired in worrying about all the possible worst-case scenarios, frequently seek reassurance, or try to eliminate uncertainty. Other examples of trying to eliminate uncertainty might be:

  • Worrying or ruminating about the future or the past to the extent that it takes away from other experiences
  • Seeking excessive reassurance from others
  • Extensive list-making or including more than is realistically accomplished in a reasonable time frame
  • Frequent checking: that you didn’t make a mistake, that loved ones are okay, etc.
  • Becoming more controlling, such as refusing to delegate tasks to others for fear it won’t be correct
  • Procrastinating or avoiding tasks
  • Over-using distractions or keeping excessively busy to avoid worrying
Harnessing Psychological Flexibility

One of the most powerful tools we have in facing future challenges, both known and unknown, is increasing our psychological flexibility. This encompasses elements of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional flexibility, and refers to how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) reconfigures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. 1

Cognitive and Behavioral Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility is broadly defined as the ability to shift perspective or approach in order to adapt to changes in the environment. High cognitive flexibility has been associated with psychological well-being and effective coping, whereas low flexibility, or rigidity, has been linked to poorer mental health outcomes. 2 It is essentially an executive function and is interdependent on other executive functions such as inhibition (particularly of useless or old methods of responding), shifting attention, and working memory (needed for the mental manipulation used in problem solving). Our ability to think about then adapt our behaviors to changing situations is essential both to survival and to ongoing success in long-term, goaloriented tasks (e.g., obtaining a college degree). 3

Emotional Flexibility: Emotional flexibility focuses on how we connect with and experience our emotions and engage in different emotion regulation strategies that are useful in a changing situation. We try not to control, ignore, or get lost in our emotions so that we are still able to experience them while being able to actively choose how we respond.

In practicing emotional flexibility, we can shift our focus from agonizing over what we cannot control to focusing on what is within our ability to reasonably control. Practicing flexibility can also help us let go of ruminating about all the possible worst-case scenarios to knowing that whatever happens, we will be able to handle it.

Increasing Psychological Flexibility:
  1. Lean into the “what ifs.” When we are stuck in the “what ifs”, it doesn’t usually help to seek reassurance from others who tell us, “Don’t worry, that won’t happen.” Reassurance-seeking is like fast-food for our inflexibility; it only fills us up for a short time and isn’t good for us in the long run. And it only makes us seek more reassurance. Instead, try to think about the likelihood of that scenario happening. If it is fairly likely, realistically think about what would happen, what you would do, and who will be your supports?

    There may be some scenarios that we will never be able to predict. In those cases, it’s helpful to reframe your answer to focus on your ability to handle whatever may happen. Maybe that scenario will happen; maybe it won’t. But whatever happens, you will deal with it because you HAVE been dealing with difficult things and you won’t be alone in dealing with it.

  2. Focus on what you can realistically control. When we excessively worry and ruminate, it’s often in situations that are uncertain. We often expend a lot of energy in worrying, but that doesn’t really help fix the situation. Scheduling worry time can be a more effective and useful way to worry by allowing our brains specific times in the week to focus on them. This technique can give us more control when we worry and allow us to put them in perspective. 4

    When situations are highly unpredictable, it can also be helpful to reflect on what we can actually control. We can reasonably control ourselves and our responses. We can also control how we want to be present in our relationships and be available to our loved ones. We can also control some of the behaviors that are associated with better mood and stress management, like exercise, connecting through relationships, and self-care.

  3. Separate from your thoughts. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us that we are not our thoughts, and when we can separate ourselves from our thoughts, they often loosen their hold on us.

    For example, when feeling overwhelmed by the thought that, “School is never going to get better, and I can’t do this,” we can change our relationship to this thought by rephrasing it, “I’m having the thought that this is never going to get better, and I am thinking I can’t do this.” This is designed to help a person flexibly relate to their thoughts rather than being dominated by them. When we believe our thoughts to be the only reality, we can lose our focus and get pulled into less flexible ways of responding. 5

  4. Practice allowing some uncertainty in your life with new experiences. When we struggle with uncertainty, rather than avoiding it, it usually helps to introduce more uncertainty into our lives. This way we can practice dealing with the worry it can produce.

    For things you do frequently or well, try changing something about how you approach them. Try learning a new skill or meeting new people. Sometimes things will go well, and sometimes they won’t. After each of these new or unexpected experiences, ask yourself: What did you do to get through it? Did it turn out alright, even if you were uncertain? If it wasn’t alright, how did you solve the issue? How terrible was the outcome? What does this say about your ability to cope with difficult things? 6 Just as our physical bodies become more flexible with stretching, we can increase our psychological flexibility by pushing past our comfort zones.

Returning to campus is both full of excitement and uncertainty — two ideas that might seem opposed to one another at first glance. However, when we cultivate psychological flexibility by using our current strengths and acknowledging when we need more support, this time of uncertainty can also be a time of enjoyment, full of formative, sometimes challenging, but ultimately meaningful experiences.


1: Kashdan, T., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health Clinical Psychology Review, 30 (7), 865-878 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001