Finding Your Flow
Something physical and chemical happens in our brains when we’re stressed. It’s not just our thoughts happening, like the ones that tell us we’re unworthy or useless. It is literally our brain chemistry going haywire to a point where it’s impossible for us to focus on any kind of rational solution. Unless you’re a super-duper science-y type person, which I am not, you might not know this, so I’ll share what I have found out about stress: it’s basically that stress is not nice to your brain, which makes your brain not nice to you.
The place in our brain that alerts us to anything we perceive as being dangerous (which in modern terms might be the fear of being fired, a nasty post from some troll on the internet, or someone yelling at us) releases all kinds of different chemicals that send signals to your body to either flee, fight, freeze or faint (aka “fight or flight response”). Those chemicals also tell the prefrontal cortex—the place responsible for rational thinking, memory and learning—to take a break. WTH, seriously? The last thing we want to happen in that kind of icky situation is to not be able to think! But guess what? That’s EXACTLY what happens.
Now you’re feeling physically sick and frightened, your heart is racing, you’re probably sweating, and you have no idea what to do next.
This is not usually when the prefrontal cortex refires and says, “Hey, wait a minute. This is BS. You’re not in any danger of dying.” This is usually when we churn, we distract ourselves with our phones, we wander around trying to find something, anything, to take that awful feeling away. This is instinct, but unfortunately, it’s not productive or helpful in any manner.
What is helpful is to do something.
Well, do something besides scrolling through TikTok or checking our email for the 274th time in the past hour. What I mean is do something that requires physical movement and thinking about something other than what set you off. This is not advice from me (frankly, I’m not scientific enough to come up with this kind of solution). Lately I’ve been listening to a podcast called The Happiness Lab, which discusses what really makes us feel happier and less stressed from a research and science-based point of view. It’s fascinating and I highly recommend it. And no, I’m not an affiliate, nor will I receive anything in return for sharing it with all of you. It just really resonates with me.
What they say over and over in these podcast episodes is that finding something called “flow” can help reverse stress responses.
Flow is a state of mind wherein you’re so fully engrossed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time and aren’t thinking about anything other than what you are doing right at that moment.
Some people play music or paint or meditate or do yoga to find flow. Others find flow when they run or rock climb or walk a dog. Ballet is my flow (unfortunately, I can still ruminate while I’m knitting).
It seems that whatever we can do that puts us in that fully present “this is all there is right now” state of mind is what we should seek when we’re feeling stressed. Granted, there can be logistical issues with this notion. For instance, if somebody cuts you off in traffic, you won’t be able to immediately jump onto a rock face, but if you can make it safely to your destination, perhaps you can put on some headphones and listen to your favorite song or take a walk that’s somewhere green and take notice of all the colors and smells. You can also check out one of my other posts, When Mind Trash Catches Fire.
If finding flow seems like such a stupidly simple solution to something most of us battle on an ongoing basis, why don’t we just do it?
Literally? Because the rational parts of our brains aren’t working when stress takes over. That’s okay. It’s how we’re hardwired. In an ideal world, we’d all have a system in place to constantly bring us out of our lizard brains and back into the front part that thinks. As I write this, I’m laughing as I imagine how many post-it notes I’d have to stick everywhere or how many alerts I’d need to set on my phone to tell myself to do something. It wouldn’t have to be every moment, but it should probably be at least once a day, because it sounds like calming ourselves with things that put us into a flow state are cumulative, at least according to the research experts. Doing–and doing often–apparently builds up in our systems, kind of like lifting weights builds muscles.
At this point, I will ask you all the question that begs: what takes you completely out of the world? What makes you forget to eat or go to the bathroom? What can you get completely lost in doing? And the real whopper: how can you fit that into your routine on an ongoing basis, even if it’s only 10 or 15 minutes a day or a week?
I’ll be honest when I say I truly struggle with this. I’m not good at making new habits because it’s much easier to keep the old ones. Feeling stuck is a safe space and stress comes all too easily. Pulling ourselves a different direction and making a habit of it is hard. But I’m trying, and I hope you are, too. Surely we’ll all get better at it…eventually.
Now I’m going to take myself for a walk and look at the sky. Come with me?