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6 Macronutrients for Psychological Flexibility

These macronutrients work together to build psychological flexibility.

We often think about macronutrients as being related to our physical health. For example, I try my best to follow some basic nutrition guidelines when making meals for my family, and I make sure to include “nutritious movements” such as walking, hanging, and squatting when moving my body.

But macronutrients don’t just apply to food and exercise. There are six mental macronutrients that are fundamental to your psychological health. These macronutrients work together to build psychological flexibility which predicts how resilient you will be when facing life’s inevitable challenges, and how rewarding your life will feel in the long run. Steven Hayes, a co-developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), describe the 6 processes of psychological flexibility in his book, A Liberated Mind, as:

[t]he ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you, building habits that allow you to live in accordance with your values and aspirations. (2019)

A More Nutritious Psychology

When you are psychologically flexible, you’re better able to respond to significant life stressors, maintain healthy habits, and build a life with meaning and purpose. Psychological flexibility predicts your mental health, your work performance, your effectiveness at parenting, your ability to cope with sickness, your relationship health, even your sports performance.

6 Mental Macronutrients to Increase Psychological Flexibility

When practiced together, these processes are the building blocks of a life worth living, one that allows you to respond flexibly to life’s challenges, remain interconnected to a greater whole and stay focused on what is most important to you.

  1. Be Present. I once had a yoga instructor tell me, “If you’re missing something in your life, it just might be you!” Being present means being fully here, in your life, as it is, right now. When you’re present, you can notice difficult sensations, thoughts, and urges without being pushed around by them. You can also better take in the goodness of your life. Presence allows you to respond more effectively and wisely. To live a meaningful life, it helps to be present in it.

  2. Know Your Values. Having clarity about what matters to you and acting on those values is the cornerstone of psychological flexibility. Values are qualities that you bring alive through your daily actions. Much like a compass that points you where you want to go, values point you toward a life that has purpose and meaning to you. Values are personal, intrinsically rewarding, and can be acted on wherever you are. For example, you can move in the direction of values like honesty, kindness, open-mindedness, generosity, or adventure at work, in your friendships, even at the grocery store.

  3. Practice Acceptance. Acceptance in ACT means being willing to open up to your full experience, rather than trying to control it. Acceptance involves getting curious about and allowing your experiences to arise, including uncomfortable thoughts, sensations, emotions, urges, and/or memories without pushing them away or avoiding them. With acceptance, you have more room to move flexibility in your life.

  4. Defuse Your Thoughts. Cognitive defusion involves seeing your thoughts for what they are – words, sounds, and images that your mind creates. With cognitive defusion, you get a little space from your thoughts so that you can choose how you want to act, rather than your thoughts choosing for you.

  5. Take Committed Action. Committed action involves choosing to live in ways that support what you care about. With Committed Action you organize your goals and habits around your values, and use the science of behavior change to make your changes sustainable.

  6. Get Perspective. Perspective-taking is at the heart of compassion, effective communication, and conflict resolution. It’s also key to becoming more psychologically flexible. When perspective taking, you can step back from stories you have about yourself and others and take in different views. Flexible perspective-taking allows you to see that you, and everything around you, exists in a context; a context that is interdependent and interrelated to the world in which you live.

Bonus Nutrient: Compassion. Technically, compassion is not one of the core processes of ACT, but it’s infused in all of ACT processes. Compassion is being aware that someone (including yourself) is suffering and turning toward them with kindness, care, and a desire to alleviate that suffering.