Lara Tormo: "Mental flexibility is key in coping with suffering".
Psychologist Lara Tormo talks to us about the role of mental flexibility in the face of the pandemic.
If anything characterizes the human being, it is the ability to adapt to new situations, unexplored environments, etc. It is, in part, what has allowed us to develop great civilizations. However, this capacity for psychological flexibility is, at the same time, something that is complex to understand, precisely because it is constantly changing according to context, culture, etc.
To better understand this phenomenon, we interviewed psychologist Lara Tormo, who talks to us about the implications of mental flexibility in a crisis situation such as the coronavirus pandemic. coronavirus pandemic.
Interview with Lara Tormo: mental flexibility in times of COVID-19.
Lara Tormo is a Health Psychologist with a practice in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.She works mainly with adults and adolescents in face-to-face or online therapy sessions. In this interview she talks to us about the importance of knowing how to adapt psychologically to the challenges that the coronavirus crisis has brought with it.
What exactly do we mean by mental flexibility?
Mental flexibility is the ability to be in the present moment, thus being able to attend to all the nuances of the here and now in order to adapt to the circumstances. It entails an attitude of openness to experience and kindness without judgment.
Getting rid of judgments is a complicated thing because the positive part of it is that it makes the world easier for us to classify and order the enormous amount of information we receive. But the downside of this is that we presuppose aspects that may not be, for the sake of saving energy, and this causes us to miss all the nuances.
Inflexibility is governed by the anxiety we experience when we want things to be a certain way. And we are not able to see beyond, we anchor ourselves to our perfect idea of how something would be and paradoxically this takes us away from the beautiful thing that is happening at that moment.
If we don't worry about having that hygiene of the moment, we will find ourselves without peace for a lifetime, trying to struggle and going against the tide.
How does this relate to the concept of resilience?
Resilience is a person's ability to cope with adversity through positive behaviors in the face of stress, threat or conflict.
People who adapt to change are more resilient because they do not have predetermined goals. And, in case they have them, if they do not happen, they are able to take perspective and reformulate their new objectives adapting to the new reality.
Resilience has to do with believing that what one is going to do will have an effect on the environment or that certain things will happen. In contrast, people who have been raised in disabling environments will not have a sense of control over the environment and will have a self-concept of themselves as not having the ability to make things change.
Despite the fact that resilience is a skill that is very much shaped by the way and the environment in which we have been raised, it is equally trainable. For this it is necessary to make an effort to direct our attention to those things that we are achieving by ourselves, in order to build the feeling that we can change the environment and have an effect on it.
How does it affect our mental balance when we do not have cognitive flexibility?
I would dare to say that to unhappiness directly, to suffering. This suffering can be expressed in different ways and it is when we observe in consultation, different symptoms and problems, but in the end it is the same suffering.
Suffering appears when a belief (both positive and negative) is perpetuated and becomes entrenched. A person who thinks he/she is the best person in the world (narcissistic personality disorder) is just as harmful as a person who thinks he/she is the worst person in the world (low self-esteem or depression).
In the face of a crisis such as the coronavirus, what aspects of mental flexibility seem most relevant to you?
I find this point interesting because I do not believe that COVID-19 is the "culprit" of all the pathologies that are emerging. I simply believe that it has exacerbated what we already had inside us... And this is in addition to the inability to adapt to this new reality. The high incidence of mental disorders in recent months I think is due to the physical and mental resistance that we tend to put to new changes.
The complaining internal dialogue is what is usually the order of the day in these times, "what a year", "they lock us up", when if we stop to think... for once in our lives, for a period of time everything stopped, what a great gift to have time for oneself! But we are also not used to be with ourselves, to enjoy solitude, time to do the leisure activities we like, or even to find new ones (because they had to be indoors).
Instead of paying attention to the positive aspects of the moment, we complain about the premeditated idea we have of how life has to be, full of work and with no time for ourselves.
And in cases where psychotherapy is needed to avoid being overcome by this pandemic context, how does mental flexibility play a role in the progress of treatment?
It is one of the key pieces to better cope with suffering. We usually have a hard time because our resolution mind tells us to run away from what causes us fear and pain. But we hurt what matters to us, and if we run away from the feeling of vulnerability, we will also run away from what matters to us. It sounds like a simple idea, but it goes against our programming and instincts.
If someone who goes to therapy, in a way they are condoning going into everything they are afraid of. Then they will begin the journey of looking inward and relaxing those patterns of behavior that are causing them to suffer.
The process of therapy involves paying attention to our thoughts with curiosity, opening ourselves to our emotions, attending to what is in the present, learning the art of perspective taking, discovering our deepest values and building habits based on what we really want.
Are there aspects of the culture in which we live that discourage this kind of adaptation and psychological flexibility in the face of challenges, or directly punish those who go outside the norm in certain ways?
From education we are educated to follow a certain orderly pattern in which, whoever breaks the norm, is rare... when I think it is quite the opposite. But to a certain extent, this organization and order is convenient in many occasions.
What habits are useful to enhance mental flexibility on a daily basis?
It is a skill that requires continuous practice if it has not been acquired. And it depends on six skills that are fully trainable.
First, you have to train the ability to not identify with your own thoughts (Defusion). The problem when we merge with our own thoughts is that we believe them 100%, it affects our emotions and therefore our behaviors. And worst of all, is that, in the long run, as human beings we have concluded that we are our thoughts, and only that. When in reality we are much more than that if we pay attention to other aspects of our body (bodily sensations, breathing, etc.).
Secondly, I believe it is important to develop a perspective of the self as a function of context. Because many times we attribute characteristics to ourselves as if they were innate to us...and unchangeable. When really we are that way because of the environment in which we have been raised or with which we are interacting. We suffer less when we are aware that we react in certain ways, in a certain part, because we are "victims" of our past... and not because we have consciously chosen to do so. In this way we forgive ourselves, we accept ourselves and we can change.
I also believe it is important to go through a process of acceptance. When I say acceptance I don't mean giving up, but not going against who you are. It is only through acceptance that true change can take place because we assume responsibility. When we are not aware of this, unconsciously we are constantly avoiding what we do not like and we are anchored in a loop with no way out.
Working on presence is of utmost importance to use the mind as if it were a flashlight focused inward and not outward. This is an attempt to attend to all the bodily sensations of that moment, to establish the focus of attention and also to open the focus to aspects that we are not used to notice. Practice meditation or mindfulness to be present in the here and now. Otherwise, we anchor our mind in worries of the past or worrisome anticipations of the future, aspects that go hand in hand with suffering.
One of the last requirements to be able to have mental flexibility is to be clear about one's values and set goals in relation to them. When we are not aware of them, because we have not even questioned them, our life is governed by the "debos", which are rigid rules of operation that we impose on ourselves, but do not really make us happy. These come from the history you have lived, the environments in which you have grown up and the expectations that have been created in you. And if we stop acting because of an "I must", we feel bad because it is the way we have learned to act automatically and unconsciously. Values, on the other hand, are freely chosen and are therefore more flexible per se.
Finally, committed action is essential because without action there is no change. It is necessary to insert new habits and routines in order to get where we want to go. In order to be able to try new aspects and get out of the hermetic and inflexible behavior pattern.