How flexible do you feel when facing a challenge in life?
To evaluate your ability to bend and pivot to changing circumstances, take a moment to read through the following statements. On a scale from 1 to 10, how strongly would you agree with each?
- When I am working on something, I monitor my progress very carefully. This helps me spot problems as early as possible.
- It doesn’t bother me when I see that something is not working. This just means I need to tweak something I am doing.
- I make plans, but I don’t get so attached to any plan that I have to follow it no matter what.
- New approaches to a problem don’t scare me.
- If plan A does not work, I can quickly and easily move to plan B (or plan C, D, etc.).
- I tend to think well on my feet.
- I tend to stay relaxed and creative, even when under stress.
- I don’t think I have to be right or perfect all the time.
- I don’t believe that “winners never quit” or “quitters never win.” Once I see that my plan isn’t working, I believe the fastest way out is to stop, turn around, or pivot in my approach.
Adaptability is strongly related to creativity, the ability to see multiple solutions – even ones that others have never used or even thought of – to solve problems.
According to the “Broaden and Build” theory developed by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson,1 adaptability and creativity help to create a positive mental outlook on life.
And the benefit goes the other way, too: a positive outlook, including the ability to take problems in stride and stay relaxed and happy under pressure, feeds into future adaptability and creativity.
In other words, positive emotions “broaden and build” our mental toolbox to deal with future problems.
What you and I often experience is the opposite, particularly when we feel stressed out. Many think that working under pressure is a good thing, but research shows that mental stress shuts down the problem-solving parts of the brain.
Stress can create a sort of tunnel vision in which we don’t see the problem as clearly as we should, nor do we see as many solutions as there actually are.
So the question is, how do we switch from one outlook to the other? In the face of stress, how do we trade the “downward spiral” of depression and anxiety for the “upward spiral” of creativity, adaptability, and positivity?
The following tips are adapted from Glenn Schiraldi’s Resilience Workbook:2
I have learned — the hard way — that creative writing takes time. So I try to start writing projects early, several weeks before a deadline, to allow my thoughts to develop depth and nuance that they simply don’t get in a rush job.
I can definitely tell the difference between the two. For me, thoughtful writing is like slow-cooked pot-roast while a rush job is like barely cooked hamburger. (I’m a vegetarian now, but I used to eat meat as a kid.)
Procrastination is often propped up with the excuse that “extra pressure will force the creative juices to flow.” But from a neuroscientific viewpoint, this is just not a good strategy. The problem-solving parts of the brain do not work better under unnecessary pressure – they work worse.
The outcome of such pressure is often the equivalent of greasy, unappetizing hamburger.
Trust the process.
The two basic ingredients to problem-solving are: 1) time and 2) effort.
Starting early gives the brain time to come with the best strategy, not the most expedient one.
And the brain is a marvelous problem-solving machine – with focused effort, a solution usually presents itself pretty quickly.
So relax. Trust that this will happen. The brain is really good at this kind of work.
I covered relaxation techniques in an earlier blog post. If you still have trouble relaxing, then you might have an underlying problem with anxiety, depression, or both.
Be a neutral observer to your anxiety.
Have you ever gotten anxious because you were feeling anxious?
This is pretty common, actually. Many of us experience negative emotions, like worry, and then we get worried that we are feeling worried. This is a manifestation of “metacognition” – our ability to think about and be aware of our own thought processes.
The reason why we feel anxious or worried is because we are judging ourselves for our negative feelings. “You SHOULDN’T feel that way!” we scold ourselves. “Just pull yourself together!”
The problem with this approach is that it tends to reinforce a negative feeling rather than ridding us of it.
Kind of like telling yourself NOT to think about a pink elephant.
Stop thinking about that pink elephant!
Did that work? Or did a herd of pink elephants just lumber across your mental landscape?
The solution is to simply take not of – but not judge – the worries and doubts that lumber across your mental landscape.
Treat them with interest and curiosity rather than fear. Interest and curiosity are positive metacognitions that help the brain-solving areas of the brain stay engaged with a problem. They are even capable of stoking the brain’s creative fires.
Take your worry or anxiety as a positive sign that this problem means a lot to you. Then get to work solving it.
Current research in learning suggests that multiple bursts in mental activity, with breaks in between, are more beneficial than one long session.3
This just makes sense, doesn’t it? Taking breaks gives us the chance to step back and gain fresh perspective. Even when we are not consciously thinking about the problem, the brain can continue processing it in the background, connecting dots and testing different solutions.
This is why the old advice “Try sleeping on it” still works. Have you ever gone to bed with an unsolved problem, only to wake up the next morning with a novel solution? This happens to all of us.
So give your brain a break once in a while. You can sleep on it with a good night’s sleep or even a power nap, or you can take a walk, bike ride, quick swim, stroll through your garden, or any other form of enjoyable activity.
Don’t freak out over these “unproductive” breaks. In the long run, they will help you be more productive, not less.
Replace limiting thoughts with empowering thoughts.
This is just an application of the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, where we replace negative thoughts about our problems that drag us down into doubt and despair, with empowering thoughts that instead broaden and build our ability to cope with them.
|Limiting Thoughts||Empowering Thoughts|
|I can’t solve this.||Maybe I can solve this. All I need to do is give it time and the right effort.|
|There’s only one way to solve this.||There are many ways to solve this.|
|I have failed in the past, so I will fail now.||Every failure is a stepping stone to success.|
|I’ve never solved a problem this way before, so it won’t work.||I’ll never know until I try. Maybe no one has thought of this solution before.|
|I’m scared of risks.||Sometimes risks are necessary to find a new solution.|
|If I fail, that means I’m a failure.||Failure – or success, for that matter – does not equal my worth.|
Capture ideas from…everywhere.
When I am in the middle of a large project, like writing a book, I often experience mental tunnel vision where I start eating, sleeping, and breathing that particular project. I feel guilty when I am doing anything else because I’m thinking that I should expend energy only on activities that directly benefit that project.
It took me a long time to realize that having a diverse set of interests and hobbies actually enriches my work rather than takes away from it. So while I am listening to an interesting podcast (I’m a big fan of history, biography, and storytelling podcasts), I often hear a story that becomes an interesting illustration somewhere in my project.
Diverse interests feed creativity. We can fill our minds with ideas from many sources:
- movies and books (not just related to the work itself);
- family members (my daughters have some of the best ideas ever);
- friends and mentors.
Free services like EverNote can store pictures, pdfs, audio or video clips, and even recorded meetings and conversations.
Conclusion & Action Steps
1. If you benefited from this blog post, please SHARE it. Social shares makes a larger difference than you may be realize.
2. If you are interested in reading more by Barbara Frederickson, try her book Positivity. You can find it at Amazon.
(please note that, as an Amazon Associate, I will make a small commission on your purchase through this link – at no extra cost to you.)
3. If you are interested in reading Glenn Schiraldi’s book on resilience, you can find it at Amazon.
1 Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2018). Reflections on positive emotions and upward spirals. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 194-199.
2 Schiraldi, G. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications. pp.217-225.
3 Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.