Everyone is talking about “hacking FLOW states”, meaning they’ve found a way to pursue exhilarating lives. If you’re like me, often life feels more like a hack and not at all flowy!
A new little human being has recently joined our family tribe and, suddenly, negotiating outings have become a Brexit stalemate. Saturday mornings go something like this:
“What should we do today, guys?” I query with trepidation and a false smile.
“Grumph,” says my hungry hubby until his intermittent fast ends at midday.
“Nothing,” the pre-tween disengages. He is dressed in head-to-toe hero attire, with a jingly bell around his neck to warn us away.
“Well, I’m not going for a hike,” says the intimidating six-year-old. Now creative in his obstructive tactics, he either refuses to walk upright or walks backward.
“Let’s go out for tea,” says an enthusiastic Gran.
The 10-month-old gurgles co-operatively until… until she is strapped into the car seat when she screams blue murder.
To remedy this black hole of the white-picket-fence dreariness, my husband and I made a pact: “Let’s make this year extraordinary.” And so, between 9 AM and 12 midday on Tuesdays, we devote ourselves to experiences that fill us with wonder. Stand-up paddleboarding, swimming with dolphins in Muizenberg, suspension yoga, sauna with a view of the city, trail running through the forest, hiking to a mountain pool.
These enriching experiences help us feel more creative, productive, and inspired for the rest of the week. We are receiving the benefits of FLOW states, and, curiously, we feel closer to one another and our menagerie.
So, what is FLOW?
It’s that optimum state of consciousness where you become so engrossed in an activity that a sense of time and self dissolves. Your performance is heightened and becomes effortless.
It is the most elusive, but most desirable of human conditions.
FLOW states were previously thought to be limited to adventurous athletes. Jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit or barreling through a wave would certainly provide the right circumstances to heighten performance. However, recent research has discovered that mere mortals can also unlock our potential by inducing this FLOW state. We need it because it can help us perform our best and feel our best.
FLOW is appealing to me as a psychiatrist because it has a brain regenerative quality. People who experience the most FLOW states are the happiest people on earth. The theta-brain-wave state (previously detected in hardcore meditating monks) releases six of the most potent neurochemicals simultaneously: dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, oxytocin, cannabinoids, and endorphins. It is the ultimate feel-good pill.
I have been teaching FLOW at the retreats I host
However, I was failing dismally to create FLOW in my family, with everyone’s differing needs.
Children enter FLOW states naturally. They become engrossed in a sunbeam or delighted by the spinning on a merry-go-round. But many of our kids are out of sync with this natural proclivity. They suffer from exhaustion and lack of resilience, and they are increasingly prescribed medication to control anxiety or poor concentration.
I believe that adults and schools inadvertently interrupt genuine FLOW opportunities for our kids. The culprits are rigid curricula, overscheduling, interfering parenting styles, or modeling unproductive multitasking behavior (how often are we texting while we could be designing a Lego cathedral?).
On realizing the part I played in Un-Flow-Fullness, I decided to experiment with the triggers of FLOW to see if I could induce cohesion and excitement in my mutinous family.
1. Struggle and Challenge
To access FLOW states, the task must be difficult. If it’s too easy, the brain is apathetic and bored. Attention can’t be sustained. Too challenging, and anxiety takes over.
We need an uncomfortable stretch experience. The brain requires enough struggle or frustration to captivate attention. My kids now call it “going into a dip”. It’s the “C curve” before mastery – the tearful wobbliness as you learn to ride a bike, and the patience required when learning chess.
It’s not always that easy to manage the dip myself, which may include tantrums and histrionics (and that’s just from me!). As a family, we are making a concerted effort to help one another emotionally regulate by staying with the dip long enough to see a positive outcome. My son describes it like this: “I concentrate and concentrate, and if I’m angry, I use my energy to breathe, to make myself calm, and then I can turn my frown upside down!”
Importantly, we need a transient release from the frustration – a jump on a trampoline, putting on music, meditation. This allows nitrous oxide to flood the brain and clear the cortisol associated with stress. What awaits on the other side of this struggle when we return to the activity is… FLOW? This is the realm of superior memory, problem-solving and heightened creativity.
FLOW occurs only when there is a high consequence. Either it is dangerous, or there is a potential to fail or be humiliated. It has been stated that innovation can’t exist if failure is not an option. Norwegians are studying the effects of constrained play on children. Too much emphasis has been given to issues of health and safety, where urban playgrounds, increased screen time, and reduced access to nature have inhibited children from engaging in the type of play they relish.
There is a valid concern that our kids are less physically fit, prone to anxiety, and have a low mastery of managing risk.
Children are motivated to experience excitement and fear. They seek thrilling activities when left to their own devices. It has even been observed in toddlers, who describe the desired feeling as “scary-funny”.
Some events are etched into my memory, making my stomach turn. My oldest son, at two years old, took his black motorbike to the top of the slide at nursery school and sensationally attempted to launch himself down it. A few years later, he made cardboard “skis” and tried to do an extremely long jump down the slide while his younger brother diligently held a piece of wire at the bottom for the finishing line. While these dares could have had a disastrous consequence, I can’t fault the creativity.
How did we manage daring adventures when we were kids, with much less supervision?
Cycling around the neighborhood, tightrope-walking between trees, or making box cars from pieces of wood. I think of the many times I have restricted my children’s proclivity for exploration and curiosity with my matronly paranoia.
However, risky play is now seen as an important requirement for children’s development. Elements may include height, speed, supervised use of adult tools, or rough-and-tumble play.
I now try to encourage more messy and interesting experiments. “Let’s make an exploding volcano.” I support them with their extreme and often illogical plans. “Can we make a giant Spiderman web on the top of the tree?”
Naturally, I am concerned about either of them sustaining a head injury, and my pretty little daughter is becoming less fairy and more thug, but I’ve seen that my helicoptering style reduced their ability to 3assess risk for themselves or to creatively problem-solve.
3. Immersive experience
FLOW is triggered through an immersive experience. Tragically, subjects in dancing, music, and drama have been relegated to make way for left-brain learning such as numeracy. If schools were wise, they would appreciate that there would be exponential leaps in learning and productivity if more of these FLOW-inducing subjects were reintroduced as the backbone of the curriculum.
The brain responds to multisensory inputs and linking patterns.
Thought leaders recognize that Montessori and Reggio Emilio’s educational philosophies, particularly, encourage child-centered and immersive learning opportunities.
I have a son who tends towards ADD, and I have decided to change his school rather than medicate him. His progressive new school is dedicated to creative education. FLOW states are cultivated, and I believe his learning and memory have benefited as a result.
I hypothesize that an increase in the prevalence of ADHD symptoms may be associated with reduced opportunities to enter FLOW states.
Parents tend to micro-manage their children, which interrupts opportunities for lateral thinking. Our schools don’t harness the aptitude these brains have. The ADHD brain is primed for impulsivity and risk. The more speed and danger, the greater the attraction. The ADHD brain more easily enters theta brain-wave states and has reduced engagement of the frontal lobe, which is the controlling executive brain. This desirable brain wave and transient hypofrontality (reduced activity) are exactly what is required to enter FLOW. Moreover, it’s not well known that an ADHD brain can hyper-focus and exclude other stimuli, when it’s interested in a subject, for much longer than “normal” brains. These are the hallmarks of FLOW.
Has the experiment to induce FLOW mobilized my troops?
We actively encourage challenge or novelty. When playing the memory game “I went to the market to buy…”, we now choose objects that are a little unsavory/disgusting! Can you imagine the improvement in working memory? We rock-climb at the beach and sometimes stage family relay races to gain ground on a forest walk. We have prank days and set up booby traps for anyone in the family who wakes up first during holidays.
This conjoined goal to pursue excitement has shifted the dynamic to one of intimacy, laughter, and vitality. The unintended consequence is that the connection and fun motivate them to be disciplined with more taxing work.
My own exhaustion and desire to escape the seduction of my phone or to turn on the TV for them have also diminished. My brain is thriving from these scary-funny experiences.
My wonderful takeaway from this journey is that we don’t need to be extreme athletes to GO with the FLOW. If you’re feeling a little strung out or requiring some parenting revitalization, I dare you to set up an immersive and novel experience for your family, and discover if this helps life feel a little more exhilarating.
Want to know more?
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Who is the Author?
DR SIOBHAN DAWSON (Shiv) is a Specialist Psychiatrist MBChB MRCPsych (London)
She trained in London at St George’s and University College of London Training Programme. When she returned to South Africa, she became one of the first Integrative Psychiatrists in the country.
Despite her excellent training, she did not always feel that my patients were becoming the healthiest, happiest versions of themselves. The medication sometimes stabilized them but made them feel numb or caused side effects like weight gain or sexual dysfunction.
It was only until my father was dying of cancer, that she explored the Revolution in Functional/ Integrative Medicine. She learned that restoring the gut and immune system had the unexpected advantage of improving mental health conditions. Dr Dawson says we have all been ignoring a vital aspect of treating our patients holistically: Food as Medicine/ Exercise/ Detoxification/ Genetics/ Finding Purpose.