A flow state is a near-mythical psychological state that makes us calm, alert and highly able to react and respond to what’s going on around us.
Flow states are the mental states we go into when we’re hurtling down the side of a snowy mountain on a snowboard and they’re the state we enter when we’re able to quickly respond to a falling object and thereby catch it in the nick of time. Flow states also give us the ability to stay fixated on work without distraction, or to lose ourselves in conversation to the extent that we don’t notice the passage of time. Flow states are sometimes referred to as being ‘in the zone’ and chances are that most of us have experienced them at some time or other.
In fact, it is suggested that most athletic records were broken by athletes that had unintentionally tapped into flow states. And it is suggested that flow states might be the key to many major breakthroughs in science and business.
What’s Happening in the Brain?
So what’s happening in the brain during these flow states? In reality, flow states are dictated by the production of numerous neurotransmitters and hormones that bear close resemblance to those produced during stress or the ‘fight or flight’ response. These include:
- Adrenaline (epinephrine)
- Noreadrenaline (norepinephrine)
However, it is likely that the brain also produces more serotonin than it would during fight or flight and there are also large quantities of anandamide – which is the ‘bliss’ hormone that is associated with marijuana use.
This combination of neurotransmitters is also combined with a brain state called ‘temporo-hypofrontality’. This means that activity in the prefrontal cortex is temporarily subdued, essentially allowing the brain to act without the critical ‘inner voice’ or second guessing. This is what enhances reactions and creates the sense of time almost slowing down. Meanwhile, anandamide increases creative problem solving, while the serotonin and dopamine enhances the senses, reflexes and more.
How to Trigger Flow States Instead of Anxiety
Essentially, the chemical makeup of a flow state is similar to stress but combined with bliss/the feel good hormone. In other words, we kick into a state of heightened awareness when we think something is highly important or possibly even dangerous. The difference though is that we aren’t afraid at this point and instead we enjoy it leading to the sense of elation.
So next time you feel stressed, try to view it as an enjoyable challenge and you may just be able to tap into your full potential!