What is  “The Flow State”?

What is “The Flow State”?

Have you ever experienced the feeling where you can do no wrong, where every action you take is perfect, where time slows down or speeds up and you’re totally in the moment undistracted by what’s going on around you or by the voice in your head?

If you answered yes you’ve experienced The Flow State.

The Flow State is the ultimate human performance state, it’s often referred to in layman’s terms as “the Zone.” It’s that time when you perform perfectly. Where everything is effortless, time dilates and you are often left with a huge buzz and a sense of well being.

Repeated entry into The Flow State is associated with higher levels of happiness, longer lifespans, higher levels of wealth and more career success. Perhaps the most relevant benefits in today’s viral environment are upgraded overall health and improved immune systems. 

It’s also been calculated that you perform up to 350% better when you are in a flow state.

In fact if biohacking is the quest for peak performance, The Flow State is the pinnacle of that search.

No wonder companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are spending millions on projects to implement more of it in the workplace. But how do we, who don’t have the budget of these mega corporations get more Flow in our lives, especially at the moment where its immune boosting effects are needed more than ever?Well, the first step is to understand how it works.

Before we get anywhere near the flow state we have to go through a series of steps, the first is… 

The  Struggle Phase.

This is, as the name would suggest, the unpleasant (but absolutely necessary) part. It’s also where we’ll spend most of our time. We research, we experiment, we fail over and over again, but each time we fail a little less. This is the phase where we’re practicing a new skill and messing it up every time; the time when we’re desperately trying to work out how it all fits together; the part when we’re pissed off and disillusioned and tempted just to sack it all off and go to the pub.

During this stage cortisol levels rise and our brain is emitting beta waves-  types of waves often related to problem solving. It’s frustrating, stressful and is the very reason most of us don’t really have much experience of Flow, because we give up long before we get there. Those who don’t give up come up against another problem. 

You see, we have been conditioned since a very early age to believe old sayings such as “try, try and try again” or “if you work hard enough you can achieve anything.” And so we do, we struggle harder and harder, getting more and more frustrated, more and more stressed.  

We literally try to bludgeon our way into a flow state, reasoning that if we just keep banging our head against that brick wall long enough we’ll break through. Unfortunately…this doesn’t work.

Why? – Because Flow is an intensely focused but intensely RELAXED state. The key here is the word “relaxed.” With all that frustration and stress generated through the struggle phase there is NO WAY you’re relaxed. You have to calm down, release, and clear out that cortisol and breath.

Our mothers were all flow hacking experts. When you got frustrated doing some task or because you couldn’t do something well, what did she say? “Do something else for a while, take your mind off it”

And what inevitably happens when you do? You come back and perform 10 times better often wondering what all the fuss was about. 

As another example, when do all the best ideas hit you? It usually comes when you’re daydreaming (or singing) in the shower! (And you’re nowhere near a pen to write down the life changing idea you’ve just had!) Why the hell is this? Because the second stage of the flow cycle is… 

The Release Phase.

We have to shift from the beta brain wave, cortisol fight or flight response of the struggle phase to the alpha brain wave dominated, relaxed release phase. Doing this triggers a whole host of chemical changes within the body, clearing out the cortisol and putting you in that day dreaming, meditative state.

Expert thinkers have been aware of this for years. Einstein used to spend 20 minutes a day on his back in a rowing boat just staring up at the clouds daydreaming. Edison used to sit in a chair with a cricket ball in his hand and fall asleep, so that just as he started to drift off his hand relaxed, dropped the ball and boom –  he was hit with an idea.

In the release phase the body and mind relax so we are prepared to enter the flow state.It’s only then the magic can happen and when it does you enter…

The Flow State

The body dumps norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins into the blood stream so we enter a totally altered state. All of these are performance enhancing, feel good neurochemicals which make you faster, stronger, and quicker – both physically and mentally – and make you feel really damn good while doing it. They enable the brain to make new connections at lightning speed and perform at its absolute highest potential. Time speeds up or slows down and every action seems effortless, perfect, almost God-like. 

It’s literally the most addictive high on the planet. All those weed smoking and drug taking extreme sports athletes are not necessarily drug addicts as much as they are flow addicts. The chemicals in these drugs go part way to simulating the intense high these individuals feel smacking the lip of a 20m wave or dropping down a perfect, powdered slope.

Flow can show up almost anywhere in life and it’s not a binary state. So you may have a mind bending, universe twisting flow experience or you may not really notice it. But some simple examples are when you are having a conversation about a topic you find really engaging and you  look up and realise an hour has passed!  But you could swear you’ve only been talking for 5 minutes. Another instance might be when you’re performing an activity you absolutely love and again all sense of time, even of self, vanish because you’re so intent are you on the task at hand. Computer games are great at inducing the flow state (which is incidentally why they’re so damn addictive). Extreme sports and public speaking are other areas where the flow state is experienced often  but rest assured that  it can show up in almost anything. Hell,  for some people it might even show up while washing the dishes! 

In the flow state you’ll perform up to 350% better than normal and  what’s more, because your brain makes new connections at an incredible rate, you’ll learn A LOT faster. For all us nerds, it’s like levelling up your character in a Role playing Game. You are now just intrinsically better and cannot go back to what you were!

The issue here is that the flow state is highly addictive, so we just want more and more. However it’s also hugely draining on our biology. It uses up a lot of resources so most of us can’t stay there for very long. This is one of the reasons for the “one last go” syndrome in sports: we just want one more go, but because we no longer have the energy to maintain a flow state,  this is usually where we get injured.

So the final stage of the flow cycle and the one we always ignore is: 

The Recovery Phase 

This is where we as bio hackers have a huge advantage. How do we recover effectively? – By eating right, sleeping well and supporting our bodies in every way we can recover properly and help prepare ourselves for the next flow experience.

In short, the stronger our biology is, the more often we’re able to get into the flow state and the longer we can stay there. This then forms a feedback loop as the flow state itself improves our health and upgrades our biology. All of this means we’ll be happier, higher performance individuals and crucially, we’ll be better naturally protected against invaders such as Covid19 when using the FLOW process to our healthy advantage. 

References

The Rise of Superman – Steven Kotler

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

After leaving the Royal Marines Sam Guest embarked on a career dedicated to Optimal Human Performance. Combining his 2 passions he works as a peak performance coach for extreme sports athletes helping them unlock their full potential using his unique NTX program.