How to attain a state of Flow even if you are not a Zen Master ;D
The 3F (Fight, Fleeing, Freeze) operating modes activated by the orthosympathetic system may partially explain ‘distress’, but to understand ‘eustress’ (and therefore the so-called ‘positive stress’) let us explore the grid below which shows how Neurobiological Drivers operate. This exploration might help deepen your understanding of what is happening in your body to accompany you in a better mastery of your performance when you experience a context where stressors are intense and continuous.
From a physiological point of view, our organism can function using two principal modes: ‘Excitation’ or ‘Relaxation’ represented by the vertical axis of the grid below. Excitation is mainly linked to adrenaline and noradrenaline, while relaxation is linked to acetylcholine. None of these two conditions is better than the other! Being extremely (really extremely) relaxed when a fawn wants to have you for lunch is not necessarily the most appropriate state; a little excitement may be useful to allow you to defend yourself or make you run faster! ;D ;-) What makes the difference is the state of your HRV as well as the level of other substances produced by your body, in other words, the type of sensations you feel, represented on the horizontal axis.
In all contexts where you experience unpleasant sensations when you are under stress, for instance, HRV becomes chaotic and cortisol is secreted in order to activate immune defense actions. When adrenaline or noradrenaline is added to the incoherent HRV and cortisol cocktail, the result is a general condition of blockage on aggressiveness characterized by Fight or Fleeing reactions.
During a state of relaxation, acetylcholine is added to the incoherent HRV and cortisol cocktail resulting is a general condition blockage on depression characterized by the Freeze reaction.
Not a rejoicing picture that of a Blocking state, isn’t it? (left part of the grid) This is what one can relate to what Selye observed in the state of ‘distress’. If prolonged in time, it can be very detrimental to physical and psychological well-being, both of which are interrelated, and can create the emotional and behavioral ravages you have surely observed in people victim of chronic stress. This doesn’t mean that the right part of the grid, the state of Flow, corresponds to what happens in a ‘eustress’ condition. Indeed, in a ‘eustress’ situation, there are imposed constraints which, although seemingly pleasant and useful at first, cause in the long term the same neurobiological effects as those of ‘distress’.
On the other hand, the state of Flow, first observed and described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I let you enjoy searching how to pronounce it correctly if you ever want to talk about it during your social events ;-)), is a state where motivation and intrinsic tension, as well as the desire for self-fulfillment, drives you to do the best you can without exhausting your energies and deep resources. Such a state is the result of your conscious and autonomous choices, triggering pleasant sensations coupled with a coherent HRV and an adequate serotonin production (among other substances).
How can you access this state of Flow without being a Zen Master? Well, there are several things to consider, which I will describe in other articles. For the time being, the first step is to probably to start by making your HRV coherent. How to do it consciously and voluntarily? By concentrating on your breath in order to master it and by focusing on your physical body in order to recover pleasant sensations. As simple as that!
As you know from experience, the main source of energy for the human body is breathing. It is also the first function affected by a stressful event (physical, emotional or relational) because of the activation of the orthosympathetic system which prepares one of the 3F reactions. Research by the HeartMath Institute, by Stephen Elliott and by Dr. Alan Watkins shows that a disturbance of breathing automatically leads to a disturbance of HRV and thus to a worsening of the catabolic state resulting in aggressiveness/depression and in a Do-It-Yourself-Lobotomy of the prefrontal neocortex.
Long story short, if you become a troglodyte in a stress situation, it is because you have done a lot of bodybuilding but you have not trained enough to breathe properly or to seek pleasant physical sensations!
Concentrating on breathing is the basis of several methods of meditation and prayer and has been recommended by various spiritual practices for several centuries. Also, if you observe a baby breathing, you will understand that this type of breathing is the natural way to breathe for a peaceful and joyful human being ;-)
Abdominal breathing is a first practice that you can explore: concentrate on pushing as much air as possible into your belly, allowing you to completely fill your lungs, especially the lower lobes where the blood flow is more important and where more efficient gas exchanges take place.
If you focus your attention on your heart, the effects are similar. By using this technique, you have a direct influence on your HRV and on the intensity of the electromagnetic field created by the heart in a situation of cardiac coherence.
Several studies show that the conscious and regular practice of concentrating on breathing (focus on the belly or on the heart is indifferent):
– regulates the autonomous nervous systems, reducing the activation of the orthosympathetic system and stimulating the activation of the parasympathetic system; and
– inhibits cortisol production and increases secretion of serotonin, the hormone of happiness which is the essential element to position yourself in the right part of the grid presented above, into a state of Flow (reaching enthusiasm or creativity).
In both cases, what is important is not to breathe deeply, but to:
– have regular and smooth breathing pattern;
– inhale through the nose and exhale through the nose or through the mouth;
– make sure that the duration of the inhale (the action which puts the muscles in tension) is shorter than or equal to the duration of the exhale (the action that relaxes the muscles);
– observe a pause of at least one second between inhaling and exhaling, as well as between each breath.
If you demonstrate the necessary discipline to practice these breathing exercises regularly for ten minutes in the evening before falling asleep and ten minutes in the morning before starting the day, after a period varying between 21 and 60 days your body and your brain record in their routines these operating modes and you will become able to master almost automatically your breathing in order to generate HRV coherence. This will allow you, even in difficult situations, to stay in the state of Flow, to keep or recover your lucidity, to preserve your intelligence and rationality, and to be able to reflect and respond through better decision-making and action capacities. This will also allow you to influence the behavior of others since the state of Flow is contagious!
Even better: the work of the HeartMath Institute, Elliot and Watkins demonstrate that just two minutes of concentration on breathing (through the belly or the heart), performed under the conditions described above, make it possible to put the HRV back in coherence mode! This is Alessandro’s daily experience in his practice as the coach, trainer, and therapist using a simple HRV measurement device. That’s why we suggest that individuals take the two minutes break when they feel under stress. You might be wondering: “How do you do when you’re at work in the middle of a rush?” Here I remind you of common sense and suggest you take a short break in the restroom, sit down, and take two minutes to breathe. As stupid as it may sound, no one, not even your most demanding boss, can prevent you from going to the restroom ;-): D
Well, I agree that this is not Nirvana yet, but it’s still a good start in your journey in learning how to better master your energies! But that’s is another story which I will talk to you about very soon ;-)