What happens when your plan is messed up by sudden, unexpected events? You make plans and are either looking forward to something or are relying on things to be working and then something happens and your plans are changed. Such as:

  • You have Christmas planned with the family and friends, and you or your child suddenly pick up a stomach bug.
  • Or your long-awaited holiday of a lifetime is cancelled due to the airline going bust or an earthquake in the destination.
  • Your washing machine breaks down and you have all your family’s washing to do.
  • The route you had planned to get to your destination when you had already felt anxious about driving, is suddenly blocked due to a burst waterpipe cutting off the whole road.
  • You suddenly lose your job because the company is sold to another one.
  • You have planned an outing with the kids to a children’s activity centre and but all you hear is your child moaning that it is boring.
  • In your relationship with your partner – do you always have to get your way or you sulk or get angry?

Our everyday life is full of changes to our plans. We or our kids get ill, modern conveniences that we have to ease our everyday life get broken and this causes extra costs to our lives, employment circumstances change, the kids are tired and grumpy and not in the mood for activities planned and we disagree with our partner. Regardless of how we try to plan our life, there are challenges and we have to adapt to sudden changes. How do you react when your plans or routines are interrupted?

Do you get angry, depleted, anxious or perhaps even stuck in a state of panic that you cannot shift or become very practical and almost emotionless on the outside? On the other hand, you may be too flexible and adapt to others’ needs without considering your own.  This post is about emotional flexibility and adaptability versus emotional rigidity and how these may help or hinder our emotional well-being and possible causes how we might have developed such emotional responses.

The importance of emotional flexibility

It is natural to feel annoyed or irritated when our plans are changed. It is very frustrating! We are all creatures of habit and want security and continuity in our lives. Are you able to acknowledge your feelings when you experience sudden changes, name your feelings, honour them and then start making alternative plans and/or seek support? If you get stuck in your first reaction e.g. anger, you may then want to pass that anger onto someone else. For example, your usual route to your work is interrupted by an accident and you are delayed, do you then experience road rage and start swearing in the car and view as everyone is out there to get you either on the road or even later on that day. Or you may experience feel like you get stuck in anxiety and feel anxious for the rest of the day in other situations such as a work meeting where you are due to present to your team a piece of work you have completed.

It is important to acknowledge your feeling whatever it is. There are no good or bad emotions, they are all equally important and tell about what events, people or even objects mean to us and about our inner states e.g. how safe we feel in a given situation or with our company. Earlier I wrote this post about the importance of feelings and emotions. Failing to acknowledge your feelings may result in you getting stuck in your particular emotional state and it then can impact on the subsequent, totally irrelevant events or your relationships with other people. In the long-term, it may impact not only your emotional well-being but also your physical health as our mind-body system is impacted by everything we experience. When you are able to acknowledge your emotional states, it is likely that this will help to subside the strength of the emotional state and you are able to quickly start accessing the higher parts of the brain, your rational brain and start making alternative plans or resolve the problem caused.

If you are able to engage in emotional flexibility when things don’t go to plan, you are also teaching your children about how to adapt to changing environments and one can survive even difficult situations without being totally overwhelmed by the changes. You are also teaching about the courage to embrace changes circumstances and how potentially a new situation can be an opportunity rather than a threat, even if initially one experiences distress.

Why we may respond to events in a rigid way?

We learn about emotions in our early relationships. When parents are responsive to their children’s emotional needs and teach children about recognising different emotional states, children as an adult are able to recognise and correctly label their emotional experiences, which is contributing to well-being.
On the other hand, if you grew up in an environment in which, for example, your physical needs were taken care of but your emotional needs were neglected, you may only recognise only polar opposite experiences (good vs bad) rather than the whole spectrum of emotions. When unexpected changes take place and your plans are disrupted, you may panic and get stuck in a state of “I’m lost” and “everything will go wrong” mode. Perhaps in your growing up your parent panicked when there were sudden, unexplained changed and you learnt that we need to be fearful of sudden changes. On the other hand, you may have learnt from your parents to be always practical. It may something serve you not to be reactive to changes or dealing with unexpected situations, but often this may contribute to distress if it is your general response to emotions.

Your parent(s) might have been very rigid in their parenting without being able to be flexible if the circumstances required it, you may then as an adult constantly seek routines and order, and any unexpected changes may cause a high level of distress and anxiety. On the other hand, not having enough parental guidance, routines that bring safety or boundaries can leave you as an adult feeling like there is no one you can trust and rely on.

If you have experienced childhood trauma and there was no supportive adult to make sense of the events with you or protect you, your downstairs brain, the lower parts of your brain may get activated and your higher parts of the brain, the rational brain, is offline when you come across unexpected events that trigger your body-brain to react. To be able to respond to changes environments and having emotional flexibility one needs to have a sense of safety: “whatever will happen I will be ok”. You can read more about your brain reacts to trauma in here.

How can I increase emotional flexibility?

Reflect on your responses to changing circumstances.
Reflect on your early experiences with changes and how your family dealt with such situations.
Start monitoring your feelings and physical reactions in a journal.
Spend time finding the correct label for your emotions.
Be compassionate to yourself as things don’t go to your plan.
Share your distress with a supportive person or a professional.

The better you know yourself and the more accepting you are of your different emotional states, the more emotionally responsive you can be.
I have included a free download in the Resource Library to help you with assessing your emotional responses.

I hope this piece has given you some thought on emotional responsiveness and how it can help with your well-being in the long run. If you have experienced childhood emotional neglect or trauma and would like to start acknowledging your feelings and increase emotional flexibility, please take a look at my services page.