I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive flexibility lately. It’s often a topic that comes up at school, but beyond that, it’s something we need to think about, not only if we have a chronic illness but also during a pandemic, like the one we’re currently in. Some of you may be asking, what do I mean by cognitive flexibility, so here is my short explanation: it is your mental ability to change your thoughts and behaviour as needed to adapt to different environments and situations. An example would be if you were to move to a different country, with a different culture, and how easily you were able to adapt living there. I’m going to break this post into two parts. First, being cognitively flexible as a chronically ill person, and second, being cognitively flexible as any human being living during a pandemic.
Having any chronic illness or dealing with chronic pain for any reason requires us to be cognitively flexible in order to more easily cope. People with poor cognitive flexibility tend to be more prone to mental distress, though of course that is also a more complicated process. In terms of dealing with chronic illness, I think about how I have to adjust to social outings or exercise or work. Recovering from hip surgery, how am I adapting to being on crutches, and not bending past 90 degrees in the hip. It can be difficult to adjust and adapt to these types of situations. This process is going to be different for everyone. Understanding what your limitations are is certainly important, as is the ability to not give up. One thing that’s important for me is being able to exercise because I’ve found it decreases my overall pain levels. But how do I do that now? Chair workouts is what I came up with. Why? Because they are available on YouTube and I can adapt them to what I can do. Another example from my own life is about cleaning. I’m not a neat freak but I do like a clean house. However, I can’t sweep or mop (I have laminate floors) so in my opinion, my place is a disaster. However, I tend to let that go because it isn’t helpful right now, because I literally can’t do clean the way I normally would (plus I live alone right now so there is no one else to do it for me). I have one good friend who always says, “I know you’re a strong and independent woman but you can ask for help.” What he isn’t taking into account is that I do ask for help when I need it (literally different people bring me groceries, take out my garbage and help me with laundry, including him!). When I don’t ask for help, it’s because I don’t need it, but I am flexible enough to ask for help when I do.
Now, during this pandemic I’ve seen a lot of people post on social media about many things, but I’m going to just use one example for this post, and that is gyms being closed (here in Canada at least). The most common argument against closing gyms (even though it is known that the virus is airborne and we all breathe hard at the gym) is that working out is good for your mental health. 100% it is! As a therapist-in-training I will not argue that fact. What I will say, is how flexible are we being with our workouts? I was someone who worked out at the gym between 3-5 times a week before the pandemic. The first thing I did when the gyms closed was figure out how to utilize the limited space I have in my place to do workouts at home. With zero equipment. Apps, YouTube, online gym programs (my gym literally offered free access to all kinds of stuff to members even though we weren’t paying fees anymore). Yes, it is not the same as going to the gym. It doesn’t offer a social environment, maybe not the same type of workout, but I actually got in better shape working out from home because I didn’t have to go anywhere, just change my clothes. I think it’s important that we look at what we are upset about during this time and figure out ways to do actively make the most out of the situation we are in. I’m not saying it’s easy, nor that there is a solution for every person or situation. For some situations we just need to adapt our mindsets to our current reality.
I hope this give you some food for thought. For now, keep making the most of it!