Bell Let's Talk Day - Attitude is Everything: How Flexible Thinking Can Improve Your Mental Health

As we commemorate Bell Let’s Talk Day, it’s the perfect time to think about what mental health is all about. Mental health is obviously a complex thing. It’s not simply the absence of mental illness symptoms but it’s about feeling balanced physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. But each individual is so different and what’s right for one person might not be right for another. That being said, there are some general tips that can help improve our overall mental health.

Your attitudes towards yourself, life, loved ones, community, your home, your career (if you’re engaging in paid work) and the future define and influence the choices you make and the way you cope with tricky, challenging situations. There is no one-size-fits-all attitude that will help you overcome and work through any type of adversity. But choosing to think in flexible ways, rather than locking into a black and white mindset can help you deal with tough times and improve your resilience and mental health.

What is Your Attitude?

In any difficult situation, it is worth trying to uncover your attitude towards the situation. This will be rooted in your past experiences, cognitive biases, personality, temperament and culture, and is may even be influenced by people you admire. Your attitude may be quite fixed, like an anchor you can hold onto when life gets overwhelming and the storms throw us around. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself - in fact, having a fixed, stable attitude can help you to get through many of life's problems without having to think too hard about them and stay stuck in a  stressed mode. It becomes a problem when you are faced with a problem you can't immediately solve. This can lead to feelings of being stuck and out of control, which in turn ramps up stress and anxiety responses.

Dialectics and Problem-Solving

Dialectics is a concept we introduced in last month’s blog and it’s an important psychological technique where you identify the polar opposite of your current attitude. Dialectics refers to the phenomenon that in every situation, there are always two equal and opposite truths.  For example, if you believe that you have total, unbending control over everything that happens in your life, the polar opposite of this would be the belief that you have no control over anything, that your life is controlled by a higher power or external force. Applying dialectics means finding the grey area, or synthesizing the two extremes, and thinking of as many different ideas as you can. It’s really helpful to write them down on paper or digitally in the notes section of your phone. This helps us to look more objectively at the variety of attitudes that are possible in relation to the situation. You don't have to agree with every attitude you come up with, but note down everything you can think of without worrying about whether or not you agree. This practice can help you feel more in control of your life and choices, putting you in the driver’s seat and dials down your perception of stress and anxiety. After all, one of the only things we actually have control over is our own attitude and mindset.

Flexible Thinking

When faced with a problem you can't solve, you can use dialectics to increase your cognitive flexibility. Even if you align with a particular attitude for most things, being able to see an issue from multiple perspectives means you are more likely to be able to solve it in a wise, responsive way. This is also important for alleviating the cognitive dissonance that occurs when you are faced with a situation that challenges your current attitude. Cognitive dissonance it the perception of contradictory information and the mental toll associated with it. It’s typically experienced as psychological stress when people participate in actions that go against their feelings, ideas, beliefs or values (Wikipedia). Cognitive dissonance is very uncomfortable and leads to rumination and instability. Adopting a flexible attitude doesn't mean abandoning your current belief system entirely. It just means leaving room for other perspectives and attitudes towards a situation. To promote the use of flexible thinking, rather than thinking “It shouldn’t be like this…”, you can adopt language that includes flexible, accepting statements like “I would prefer it if…” or “It would be preferential if…”. This helps us move towards understanding and accepting of the factors that lead to the situation (what is). The use of preferential language also helps us to be less attached to specific ideas of wanting things to be a certain way. It helps us be more rational, deal with reality as it is and be more objective when we’re assessing or solving a problem.

Flexibility in Practice

For example, if your attitude is that you are totally responsible for everything that happens in your life, a personal loss such as losing your job or making a financial error is going to trigger feelings of imperfection and failure. Developing cognitive flexibility in this situation could mean adjusting your attitude to something more realistic, for example, 'I can't control everything in my life, but I can control my reaction,' or, 'I can choose to see this adversity as an opportunity and make the best of it' or ‘At the very least, this situation will help me grow in wisdom and strength’.  The attitude you adopt will influence your emotions/mood and behaviour; a person with the attitude that they are totally responsible for every life event they experience may become depressed or hopeless, whereas somebody who adopts cognitive flexibility is less likely to get stuck and will demonstrate more resilience and grit.

It is good to have attitudes that are rooted in your core belief and value systems, but developing flexibility is important for solving problems, increasing your resilience, and protecting your mind from dissonance, rumination, depression, anxiety and hopelessness. If you are totally stuck in a situation and unable to solve an important problem, consider turning it on its head, looking at it with an attitude that is the polar opposite of your current mindset, and explore the grey area or middle ground between these two extremes to find alternative ways of seeing things. Afterall, psychological or cognitive flexibility versus rigidity is known to be one of the hallmarks of good mental health.  

Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash