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When a loved one tells a story, do they tend to blame themselves for negative occurrences? Do they complain that something bad is bound to happen no matter what they do? The way individuals explain events to themselves and others is called an explanatory style. 

A person with a pessimistic style may also have low psychological flexibility. This can have a significant impact on a person’s self-image and their capacity to respond to challenges. Individuals who constantly put themselves down or have trouble recovering from conflict may struggle in the workplace. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are therapeutic methods that can improve psychological wellness by helping a client change what and how they think.  

What Are Explanatory Styles? 

An explanatory — or attributional style — is an approach to explaining life events. It is normal to want to find reasons why something happened the way it did. Understanding the part an individual had in the outcome is also important. An explanatory style can be predominantly pessimistic or optimistic.

Pessimists frequently attribute negative experiences to their own shortcomings. They think the problem is likely to happen again and that it is tied to some larger pattern. Optimists see misfortune differently. Maybe the problem wasn’t their fault and can be resolved in the short term. Other activities in their life will probably not be impacted because this is a one-off event. 

How Is Mental Health Involved?

Explanatory styles and emotional disorders share an important connection. Theories explain that a person’s vulnerability to depression “Is associated with how the individual interprets information or attributes causes to personal life experiences.” Research has found that pessimists had less hope for the future and were more likely to develop depressive and anxiety disorders. Individuals also had excessive somatic complaints compared to optimists who reported better physical well-being. 

Those with a positive outlook have been found to use coping strategies to manage a particular problem rather than ignore or avoid it. They also work to manage their emotions through acceptance and humor and seek out social support. The positive aspects of issues are highlighted. These individuals may be less likely to struggle with depression and suicidal ideation.

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Being positive is a good starting point, but it might not be enough to effectively respond to and mentally process challenges. Sometimes there is no good to be found in a bad situation. One study notes, “Patients who become more optimistic by changing the contents of their thoughts evidence less durable treatment gains than patients who became more realistic in their thinking.”

A key element of well-being is a person’s psychological flexibility. This includes their ability to:

  • Adapt to fluctuating circumstances
  • Shift their mindset or behavioral response
  • Balance their needs and desires in various life domains

Additionally, a person who is resilient in this way pursues their goals despite feeling low.

How Can Therapy Help?

A pessimistic explanatory style can be an indication that someone has a very rigid way of viewing things. They have trouble considering the context in which the problem occurred and effectively responding to stressful stimuli. In other words, they lack psychological flexibility. Someone stuck in this negative pattern of thinking may benefit from seeing a therapist. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common form of talk therapy that works by giving clients the tools they need to question their cognitive orientations. The underlying assumption is that negative thoughts trigger negative emotions. By bringing this connection to the forefront of their mind, clients can pull the brakes when they start searching for things that could go wrong. The therapist will guide the client in challenging their assumptions to consider other possibilities.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Alongside CBT, mindfulness-based stress reduction can improve a client’s psychological well-being by building their resilience to emotional conditions. MBSR connects what is happening in the mind to sensations in the body to enhance awareness and, thus, control over cognition and emotions. Clients participate in activities like yoga, breathwork, and mindfulness meditation. Any uncomfortable thoughts that surface are observed without judgment or attaching meaning. 

Becoming more mindful of what is happening internally and externally creates mental space to determine how to respond to a stimulus. Someone who has been betrayed by a friend can act out from a place of hurt, or they can take their time thinking about how to process this situation. MBSR helps clients react with intention rather than being controlled by habitual behaviors. Someone who is inclined to ruminate as a result of an anxiety disorder can identify when this train of thought is taking hold and choose a new path. Those disoriented by stressful circumstances can clear their mind as they focus only on the movements of their body and breath. 

A person’s explanatory style and level of psychological flexibility can impact their mood and overall mental health. Depression and anxiety disorders are partly explained by pessimism and low adaptability to difficulty. West Coast Recovery Centers is a treatment facility for adults in Oceanside, CA. We are licensed to treat substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our main services include partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient. We believe that restoring the mind and body is an important goal in treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction focus on changing engrained patterns of cognition and behavior by improving self-awareness and emotional control. Attention to the present moment allows clients to evaluate things they’ve said during conversations and how their mood was impacted. Our dedicated team is here to provide support as clients work through their concerns. To learn more, please call (760) 492-6509.

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