Finding Flow

Flow is a psychological state that is sometimes know as “being in the zone” when everything drops away and you can simply focus on the task at hand. It’s not something to chase but it is something to appreciate when it occurs.

It’s no secret that I’m an anxious person. I’m anxious from the moment I wake up in the morning until I am fitfully falling asleep at night, thinking about things that have happened or could happen, or won’t happen. I have a difficult time existing “in the moment” on a good day. Even with many years of yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, and CBT under my belt I somehow have trouble getting out my head. My anxiety is also at its highest when I’m around others so much so that I have trouble focusing on any one thing at a time in situations like that but at the same time I’m actually quite focused on monitoring things around me but the focus is all blurred out at the edge which is a manifestation of hyper vigilance.

This is perhaps  which is probably why it’s so fascinating to me to think about flow because flow is a state of hyper focus that is almost the polar opposite of hyper vigilance. During states of hyper vigilance, the focus in intense but unpleasant. The views scatter. Things come abruptly in and out of your mind and afterwards it’s leaves you with a sense of intense, overwhelming exhaustion and often that can be disorienting as well as you haven’t really gotten good information just a lot of it. Personally, when I’m hyper vigilant one of the things that I track most closely during those instances is time. Counting breaths, counting peoples movements, starring at a phone face every 10 seconds. This gives me almost no information though, it’s simply an internal clock that I am forced to track.

Flow is the same intensity but it’s focus and the feelings associated with it are so wildly different. Flow is a feeling of a loss of time without care. Flow is your focus narrowing to only one thing so that other worries can melt away in the background. When you’re in the state of flow things feel easier to do and there’s less clutter and often afterwards there is an extreme sense of understanding, lightness, and relief.

For me, it’s pretty predictable which situations will induce either of these behaviors and because they feel like two sides of the same coin, I often feel like I am constantly chasing one with the other. If I feel too much flow then I want to get in a situation where I can challenge myself to overcome some of my hyper vigilant behaviors but if I spend too much time in a hyper vigilant state then I want to seek out flow so that I can calm down those overactive sections of my mind and find some kind of peace.

I try not to think of either of these states as negative, they’re simply parts of life that everyone is going to experience now and then but I do want to share some of my best tips for finding flow since I think it’s much harder to get in a state of flow on average than an uncomfortable situation which spikes your anxiety and causes hyper vigilance (or at least for me it certainly is).

So here is my recipe for finding and obtaining flow. I have no recommendation that you should be getting in to the zone every day or this is some key to success or anything like that, it’s just if you have a hard time finding something that gets you out of an anxious space, this is worth a shot probably:

  • Be comfortable

    • Find a place where you feel more comfortable than average. Wear comfortable clothes. Remove things from a room that make you fixate on them. Do something familiar. Drink tea or water or coffee or whatever beverage sets you at ease.
  • Be aware of your body:
    • Just a general awareness of your body is fine. Take an inventory of your limbs, think about what your arms are in space or think about how your legs feel connected to your torso. Try to move your arm slow enough so you can trade the sensation of your muscles moving.
  • Occupy your body:
    • I find sitting still to be an exercise in overthinking. Repetitive tasks are good but tasks with slight variation are better in my experience. While you want some stillness of your body where you don’t have to do work to move, you also don’t want actions to be automatic enough where you can ignore them.
  • Occupy your brain with neutral input:
    • This is the hardest part. Either pick a task that is honestly thought consuming but not frustrating. I liken this to reading a new book. If you’re an avid reader you won’t find the act of reading difficult but you will have to pay direct attention to the unfamiliar order of words and won’t be able to let your brain stray too far off course.

For some people this is going to look like exercise or running, maybe even programming or solving a puzzle. For me it often means cooking and baking but especially chopping vegetables. Chopping vegetables for me requires that I sit down in a chair, alone, in the kitchen – a place where I am familiar and comfortable. I have to actively think about where my body is watching where my hands and fingers are so I don’t get cut which takes body awareness but also occupies my body with a task. I also cook with music on so that I can sing or hum along instead of inner dialogue which could distract me and inadvertently make me miss/hurt myself. All together these things tend to generate really good flow for me. The act is methodical enough that my body knows how to do it well so it’s never frustrating but the variation between items to cut allows me to keep focused and never drift too far away.

That’s why running and walking doesn’t work for me personally but I could easily imagine them working for other people. I find the motion in walking or running is too even and regular that my mind can just wander over all of the bad things I’m thinking or slowly drift from the flow state to becoming hyper vigilant again. If it works for you though that’s great, I just need an extra component to keep me alert like the danger of cutting myself or balancing on edge of a chair while reading.

I think it’s really important to think about the states of mind we find ourselves in and maybe try to actively seek out flow when we find ourselves in a more scattered state of mind. I’d be interested to know what activities cause you to “get in the zone”.

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