Relaxing in Flow State: how flow can regulate your nervous system
There is no one size fits all for chronic pain management. As the Principal Investigator on clinical trials for pain management and the head of a team developing pain management tools, I’ve learned how uniquely different each pain experience is.
However, through research and combing through thousands of studies, my team and I have also discovered some established techniques that could become an effective tool in each person’s toolbox.
One of the best techniques we recommend is getting into Flow State.
What is Flow State?
Flow State, or flow, is when you are simultaneously relaxed and focused. It is a mental and physical state many describe as “in the zone”— where you are completely engaged with the activity at hand and the activity is rewarding in of itself. Flow feels timeless as your whole being is absorbed with an activity, and you feel a sense of control over the situation and outcome.
Why do I want to be in Flow?
Simply put, flow just feels good. Studies show flow can put your mind and body into a drug-less state of ecstasy. It has the ability to feel so good because it can:
- Quiet your mind
- Relax you
- Generate dopamine
- Focus you
To understand how powerful flow is, we need to first understand your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Your ANS is made up of two primary branches: your sympathetic system (fight, flight, or freeze mode) and your parasympathetic system (rest, digest, and recover mode).
Both ANS branches are absolutely necessary. Your sympathetic system helps to alert you to threats and engage your body so you can respond to those threats (ex. quickened heart rate, increased sweating, etc.) On the other hand, your parasympathetic system turns on to allow your body and mind to relax, recover, and even digest food after meals.
The majority of people with chronic pain or chronic conditions have trouble regulating the two branches of the ANS such that the parasympathetic turns on when it needs to. Often times, the chronic pain patients we work with live at a near constant “fight-or-flight” mode because their body engages their sympathetic system to combat the pain they experience or anticipate experiencing.
You’ll notice that Flow State creates a perfect balance between “relaxation” and “focus” which means when your body is in flow state, it can generate just enough arousal from the sympathetic system to focus, while simultaneously engaging your parasympathetic system such that you’re feeling relaxed and restored.
Flow state is a rewarding experience in and of itself, but it can be one of the best training tools for regulating your ANS.
How do you engage in Flow State?
There are a few tried and true methods for generating your own flow state, but today we will touch on two primary ways:
1. Engage in an activity you’re passionate about
- For many people, engaging in an activity they love can move their mind and body into Flow. This can include activities like writing, coloring, baking, playing basketball, and more. I’ve worked with people with chronic pain who report even just engaging in knitting once a day can help generate flow, making them utterly focused yet relaxed while absorbed with the act of knitting itself.
- If one particular activity doesn’t immediately come to mind for you, then give yourself the time to experiment with various activities that could put you into flow. Even an adult coloring book could be the answer.
- Setting aside 10 - 30 minutes a day to engage in this activity can strengthen your ability to generate Flow State within yourself to feel happier and calmer.
2. Do HRV biofeedback sessions
- Engaging in an activity is a very accessible way of learning how to generate Flow State. However it can be inconsistent depending on the activity. One of the most consistent methods of achieving Flow State is through a practice called biofeedback.
- Biofeedback is the ability to see what your body is doing in real time, and learning to change it.
What is HRV biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a type of training and therapy that allows you to see how your body is doing in real time, and then learn to affect and change your body.
HRV biofeedback specifically focuses on the teaching you to increase your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is a measure of the variance in time between your heart beats. HRV can be very complicated but what is important to know here is that HRV can directly affect your nervous system. An increased HRV can activate your parasympathetic system, your “rest, digest, recovery” mode, which can then generate flow state.
This is powerful because you can train your body to move into flow state on command.
In traditional HRV biofeedback, you put on a heart rate sensor and you’re able to see your real time heart rate graph in a computer in front of you.
A specialist is then able to walk you through various relaxation exercises and show you how your heart rate graph starts to change in front of you. With consistent practice, you learn how to change your graphs on your own, and subsequently auto-regulate your nervous system.
Biofeedback is traditionally hard to access because it requires facilities and a specialist to conduct the sessions with you. However, new technology now enables you to do biofeedback while you’re wearing a Virtual Reality headset and are immersed in a relaxing and comforting virtual world.
Doing biofeedback in VR can be powerful because it can more intuitively teach you biofeedback while feeling completely relaxed and focused with the VR worlds you’re in.
My team and I develop an app that does just this. It’s called Flowly: relaxation training that is on the Apple App Store and also in clinical trials. However, there are other options for biofeedback out there, and you can always learn to generate flow through different activities.
Most importantly, give yourself the time to explore various ways to tap into flow state. Understanding how to manage your nervous system is all about meeting your body where it’s at.