BELOW THE FLOW: WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BODY DURING FLOW STATES
Updated: May 2
Have you felt a calmness and relaxation in your body when you mediate? Have you felt positive after a workout? The mind-body connection highlights how one’s thoughts and emotions impact our biological functioning (hormones, cardiac, respiratory functioning etc.) and are also impacted by it.
Every psychological phenomenon has a biological underpinning, e.g. when you feel anxious, you start breathing shallow, palms get clammy, heart rate increases etc. Similarly, the flow state is one such phenomenon that reflects how psychological functioning is associated with certain biological changes.
I. Autonomic Nervous System
An early study of physiological changes associated with the flow was conducted with professional pianists. They found that the flow state was associated with
increased heart rate,
increased blood pressure,
higher respiratory depth and
activation of the ‘smiling” muscle of the face. The activation of this muscle is related to feeling positive emotions.
You may notice that these physiological responses do look similar to those of an anxious state too e.g. increased heart rate, shallow breathing etc. However, within flow states, the coping mechanisms (i.e. the parasympathetic system) are also readily active which help the individual cope with the challenging situation.
In essence, flow could also be understood as the individual being highly focused yet restful.
II. Arousal and cortisol
Moderate levels of arousal are considered to be optimal for flow.
To achieve flow states, the individual’s skills need to be matched with the difficulty of the task – called Challenge-skill condition (watch Dr Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk). It means that the individual needs to be proficient in that task so that the actions flow.
If the task demands > skill, then the arousal levels are high and the individual feels stressed. While if skill > task demands, arousal is low and leads to boredom.
Result? Poor performance and absence of flow states.
Can you recall a time when you felt completely in control and experienced the flow state? That's the level where your skills matched the challenge.
So what is happening in the body during arousal and stress?
Most of us have heard of CORTISOL in reference to stress. It is called the “stress hormone.” When we feel stressed, cortisol levels rise in our blood. It provides energy to deal with the demanding tasks, increases focus and reduces distractions, and also helps in decreasing tiredness. All of these ultimately help improve performance!
But the important thing to remember is, this occurs with moderate levels of cortisol. Too much cortisol naturally reduces concentration, our ability to filter distractions and increases negative emotions (anxiety). To avoid high levels of arousal & cortisol, it is important to meet the challenge-skill condition within the performance context.
This was shown by a group of researchers who conducted study with professional chess players wherein they divided players into 3 groups: overload group (skills< demands) fit group (skills= demands) and underload group (skills> demands). They found that the fit group experienced the highest levels of flow. In terms of cortisol, moderate levels of cortisol were associated with flow states. The levels of cortisol also decreased among the fit group, showing active coping of this group.
Thus, different physiological systems, namely the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, muscular system, and hormones all play a role in the flow state.
Flow states also impacts health and wellbeing given its association with optimal biological correlates and psychological factors like positive affect, active coping and feelings of control.
Such understanding of flow and what changes occur in the body during flow can have far-reaching implications within performance contexts.
Tip: Skills ≥ Challenge)= Flow
a) Matching opponents on skills helps provide optimal challenge and induce flow. This can help reduce anxiety and avoid boredom –creating more pleasurable experiences, with lower cortisol levels.
b) To all the leaders- design training programs that are based on the skill level of the group/individual so that they perceive it as a challenge and avoid heightened arousal states.