How to Overcome Negative Thoughts By Developing Psychological Flexibility

Have you ever found yourself consumed by unproductive or negative thoughts and emotions that derail you from taking action? If so, what I learned during my football coaching career about developing psychological flexibility will be invaluable in enabling you to take deliberate action under challenging circumstances.

My job was to facilitate interactions between Dr. Lionel Rosen, psychotherapist and professor at Michigan State University, with Florida State Football players looking for a mental edge. But I don’t know who benefited more, the players or me.

Dr. Rosen and I spent many hours together during the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Florida State. During that time, he introduced me to the concept of cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a key component of cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein individuals learn to identify and reshape irrational or maladaptive thoughts, such as all-or-nothing thinking.

I’m not a psychotherapist, but I think we could all benefit from disrupting irrational or negative thought patterns that prevent us from adapting to our ever-changing environment. How often have you found yourself chasing a destructive thought about something that hasn’t happened or may never happen?

For instance, you hear a rumor that a competitor may be working on a similar feature that your company is about to roll out. Instead of focusing on building a disruptive feature that could propel your product to new heights, you are consumed with hypothetical scenarios about what your competitor may be building. Instead of taking action, you become a prisoner to your thoughts.

I’m guilty of this destructive behavior, but I’ve learned to mitigate these events by training myself to be psychologically flexible. Psychological flexibility requires three things– the ability to contact the present moment, embrace uncomfortable feelings, and take actions rooted in core values.

Focus on the present moment

When you lose focus on the present moment, and your brain is hijacked by emotion, you can’t perform at your best. When I say perform, that could mean being present for your family or finishing a critical work project. When you lose focus on the present moment, you are a shell of yourself.

You can train yourself to be present by engaging in mindfulness practice. Mindfulness teaches you to be engaged in the present moment without judging your thoughts or feelings, and there are many ways you can do this.

The key is to find an anchor that works for you.

You can use the breath as an anchor and focus on your breathing. You could go for a walk and deliberately engage your senses and soak in the richness of the sun, breeze, and even how your feet feel gliding across the ground.

There are also plenty of apps, like Calm, Headspace, and Abide, that you can use if you need a guide. The key is to find an anchor and train your ability to stay in contact with the present moment.

Embrace Uncomfortable Feelings

There is a myth that the best athletes or performers don’t feel pressure. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I worked with several Olympic gold medalists in the sprint events in my previous career. One of them was Veronica Campbell-Brown. She won three Olympic gold medals, and she would often tell me that if she wasn’t a little nervous before a race, something was wrong.

The difference between her and someone who didn’t finish on the podium at the Olympic Games is that she could embrace those uncomfortable feelings and shift her attention to the present moment and take action. So the next time you are presenting in front of your colleagues, embrace any nervous feelings that pop-up and consider them to be a signal that you are alert and ready to go.

Take Action and Move Forward

That’s the third component of being psychologically flexible. When you are present and in contact with your thoughts and emotions, you can take deliberate actions guided by your values.

You don’t have to get swept up in emotion and make irrational decisions. You can take action based on who you are at your core – caring, honest, compassionate, etc. You can shift a negative thought pattern, focus on the positive, or engage with integrity in a sticky work situation.

Take a moment, write down your values, and then find an anchor that you can use to train your mind to be in contact with the present moment. In this way, you won’t be held hostage to emotion, but you’ll be able to consistently act in a manner that aligns with the person you are and want to be.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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