The Path to Flow
AN EXPLANATION AND GUIDE TO FLOW.
You may not know flow by its name, but if you are a seeker of outdoor adventure, chances are, you’ve experienced it. In fact, it is likely the thing that keeps you going back for more.
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness marked by enhanced physical and mental functioning. It can be found during a seamless snowy decent or effortlessly paddling into a double overhead wave. Whatever the environment or activity, flow requires you to be fully present and deeply focused, so much so that you become completely immersed in it. That may feel like you’ve become one with the mountain you are climbing, the wave you are surfing, or the snow you are skiing.
What comes next can best be described as a superhuman state of sorts. Movements begin to unfold effortlessly, awareness becomes extraordinary and you have complete control of your body. Time itself becomes meaningless, speeding up or slowing down. Hunger and pain slip away, leaving boundless energy to take you further, faster and longer.
You experience an intense joy and are flooded with positive, creative thoughts, often solving problems or overcoming mental blockages that stand in the way of personal growth and evolution. Also known as being “in the zone”, flow is the holy grail for athletes, where peak experience meets peak performance, and the reward is the sheer fun and enjoyment of the process. Flow is all about the journey, not the destination.
ACTIVATORS OF FLOW
The concept of flow was pioneered by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who asserted that flow states are the key to lifelong happiness and a greater quality of life. Indeed, a body of research has shown that flow is associated with enhanced physical and mental well-being, and is thus an important factor in our overall health and quality of life. And, while there are many types of activities that can unlock flow, like music, painting, and chess, Csikszentmihalyi observed that moving the body was a powerful facilitator.
“When we are unhappy, depressed, or bored we have an easy remedy at hand: use the body for all it is worth.”
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD
Importantly, Csikszentmihalyi stressed that movement alone is not enough to unlock flow, the mind is always involved. More specifically, there must be complete concentration of attention or focus on the task at hand, so that one can become completely immersed in an activity. Flow also requires a challenge that is perfectly matched to the person’s skill level. However, if the challenge is too great, a wave too big or wall too technical, then anxiety can set in, creating a barrier to flow.
Finally, clear goals must be set, such as going a certain distance or climbing a rock wall without falling, where continual feedback can reinforce that goals are being achieved. For rock climbers this positive feedback can occur through every successful move, and for runners every mile completed. This critical experienced feedback comes in the form of neurochemical rewards, like endorphins, dopamine and anandamide (aka the “bliss molecule”) that give us a euphoric, natural high and encourage us to keep skillfully performing the task.
BARRIERS TO FLOW
At its core, flow is an energetic process – requiring that immense mental energy be directed toward a single challenging task. Factors that rob the brain of energy, like sleep deprivation and stress, are known to be barriers to flow. Just one night of sleep loss was shown in a clinical study to decrease all aspects of the flow experience, including confidence, goal setting, and the ability to immerse oneself in the activity. The researchers concluded that sleep is an important factor in flow experience, and that sufficient, quality sleep is essential for inducing flow.
Sleep loss also negatively affects mood, another key modulator of flow. Flow experts suggest that the experience is more difficult to achieve when one is anxious because anxiety invokes a negative self-conscious focus that disrupts concentrated attention. Similar to anxiety, pessimistic feelings or a negative mood may also interfere with the frequency and intensity of flow.
The body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, is understood to play a key role in regulating flow state experience. While evidence suggests that a moderate bump in cortisol in response to a challenge may help to activate the flow state by supplying the body with extra energy, sensory stimulation and mental focus, too little (too relaxed) or too much of it (too stressed), and flow is impaired.
Finally, since flow state is characterized by ease and effortlessness, if the body is experiencing physical discomfort, it will be more challenging to achieve as shown in endurance runners with muscle fatigue and damage. The discomfort significantly decreased flow state occurrence, presumably by shifting attention and motivation away from pursuit of the goal toward the perceived disturbance.
In summary, the key activators of flow include:
- Clear goals
- Complete focus
- Challenge matched to skill
- Immediate feedback or rewards
While the most inhibiting barriers are:
- Low energy
- Sleep loss
- Mood imbalances
- Physical discomfort
THE POWER OF BOTANICALS
Botanicals are plants with functional benefits for health and wellness. Throughout evolutionary history, humans have harnessed the power of plants to nourish and restore the mind & body and enhance life experiences.
While plants cannot induce flow states on their own since a person must consciously direct their energy toward a challenging task and set goals, a compelling body of science suggests that the facilitators and barriers can be significantly altered by the complex chemistries found in plants. For instance, botanicals classified as Nootropics, work to enhance concentration and focus, an essential requirement for flow. Other botanicals known as Adaptogens, help to make the body more resilient to stress, often by working directly to regulate cortisol, while enhancing mood and energy so you can more fully immerse yourself in flow activities.
There is even evidence that some botanicals act directly to boost up the chemistries in the brain that reward the body for movement and are at the heart of flow. Post-adventure, botanicals can speed muscle recovery, helping to minimize the physical discomfort that can interfere with our ability to keep returning to flow.
Finally, at nighttime, botanicals can support the body in achieving deep, quality sleep that restores the body and mind, so you wake up energized and recharged. By incorporating botanicals into your routine, full body harmonization can be achieved, aiding in overall health and ultimately clearing your path to flow.
Photo Credit (in order of appearance): Panama Images, Pete McBride, Ray J. Gadd
By: Taryn Forrelli
Co-Founder of Flume and naturopathic physician.