Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person in a flow state

How Practicing a ‘Flow State’ Is Revolutionary for HSPs

“Getting into the flow” can help calm the overstimulated HSP mind. 

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are subject to many emotional highs and lows every day. It is the nature of the high-sensing person to experience emotion at a higher degree than non-HSPs, like deeply reacting to a seemingly simple moment, such as tearing up watching a sunrise.

However, one of the main troubles for HSPs is emotional regulation and managing our emotional reactivity. This can seem impossible at times, but there are many ways to survive the roller coaster. Research finds that one such tool provides a sense of accomplishment and achievement, improves self-worth and self-esteem, and can improve subjective feelings of emotional wellbeing. And, it’s likely something you have already experienced — flow.

Flow state, a pioneering idea by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a concept that maximizes the potential of anyone by employing intense focus on a goal. Athletes, creative people, and students often use a “flow state” to get in the zone for enhanced and focused performance. It is a state that most people can readily attain if there are strong, clear goals and the task is manageable, yet challenging. Despite the inherent benefits, 15 percent of the population never access flow state, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow. And, for HSPs, practicing a flow state can be revolutionary and help calm our overwhelmed senses.

What Is Flow State?

Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow state while doing studies on happiness and creativity. He found that people that were immersed in a task that was engrossing and challenging would often enter a mental state, much like hypnosis or trance, that consumed them as they performed the task. His studies led him to theorize that specific requirements must be met to achieve this high-function goal pursuit activity.

Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. If the challenges are too high, a sense of frustration and anxiety sets in. If the challenges are too low, boredom occurs.

To achieve it, one must have a clearly defined intrinsically motivated goal and a high degree of focus and concentration on a specific task. This high focus state produces a loss of self-awareness and engrossment in the task, distorting time, a sense of control and mastery, and feelings of serenity.

So an overwhelmed HSP may choose to retreat to their HSP sanctuary for some peace and quiet and immerse themselves in a book or in writing. In essence, getting into a flow state.

When a person is in flow, excellence generally follows. Other terms for flow are “getting into the zone,” “in the groove,” “being at one with…,” or “optimal or peak performance.” This single-threaded mindfulness is similar to hypnosis where the attention is singularly placed on a specific task, where one can lose the sense of self-consciousness and burrow themselves into the activity, with no second-guessing or inhibition of their performance. Because most people who achieve a flow state are intrinsically motivated, the task is done out of love, not necessarily for some external reward (autotelic). In Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, “…doing something for the love of it, even if it is not your specialty, adds to your life and everyone else.” 

How Do We Find Flow?

The importance of goal-setting in achieving flow state is imperative. These goals must be challenging, but achievable, with current skill sets. There must be unambiguous feedback on the task’s success as it progresses a mental dashboard that is continually updated. There is a merging of the task and the individual, making it seem automatic, under control, and happening in a continuous moment. This creates a sense of timelessness and immediacy, where focus and attention are tunneled into an interactive dance with the task. This bodes well for HSPs since they like order and consistency as opposed to constant change and chaos.   

But what can we do to conjure flow in our lives? We can start with a focus on our bodies. Many flow state activities require a mind/body interaction, such as playing an instrument, participating in sports, performing an art movement, or even just focusing on studies, research, or writing — all of which are naturally appealing to HSPs already. With repetition of the activity, we build body memory, which facilitates future automatic movement at an unconscious level.

Developing attention and focus helps settle the mind into a laser-like awareness, essential in achieving flow. Our minds are a cauldron of disparate thoughts — especially the overstimulated HSP mind — each demanding attention. By employing a single focus, we are creating mental alignment to the task, which is important to gaining flow. We accomplish this with a steady diet of mindfulness.

Using positive memories to reflect past success, especially when confronting a new challenging task, will permit us to pursue the activity while muzzling the negative chatter that previous failures bring. These memories allow your thoughts to bubble up freely and spontaneously, bringing effortless insights and creativity to the task. (Again, HSPs are at an advantage here since we value deep thinking and being creative.)

The more you learn, the more you feed your unconscious mind. The more learned material you have to work with, the easier it is to connect the dots later in flow. The learning can be academic, athletic, or anything that feeds the mind/body.

The operative word for achieving flow is challenge. Without a challenge, the task is not engaging enough to focus the attention needed to achieve flow. Always look for new challenges, stretch yourself by raising the bar, and take a risk —  however slight —  to encourage growth and expand your comfort zone.

Since flow is an immersive activity, expose yourself to new experiences and environments, participate in high-consequence activities, and don’t be intimidated by the challenge. An old basketball coach of mine once told me, always the reluctant shooter, “Never up, never in.” If you don’t shoot the ball, you’ll never score. The same is true with flow: getting involved can start with an enjoyed activity in which you’d like to gain additional competence and experience.

And don’t look to the outside world to validate your internal view of yourself. Keep trying, stay focused, and realize that the moment competency is at hand, you are likely in flow state. How great will that be to create a focused internal world of achievement? Plus, it will free your HSP mind from its usual state of overwhelm.

Using Brain Training Can Aid in the Development of Flow

Since flow state is remarkably like a state of mindfulness, it is no surprise that activities that facilitate flow would be those things that involve meditation and mindfulness training. Research shows that flow is a concept that’s been embraced by Taoism and Buddhism for thousands of years and can be compared to the Taoist state of Wu Wei, or action without action or effortless action. Further research has found that any type of activity that would involve body/mind interaction would be useful in developing flow. These include yoga, dance, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, martial arts, walking or sitting meditation, neurofeedback training, brain entrainment with sound/music, and hypnosis.

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The Significance of Flow State for Highly Sensitive People

So, why should highly sensitive people take on an intense, immersive activity that offers challenges and boundary-busting rewards (but might require practice and effort to achieve)? Let’s look at some of the benefits it has for HSPs:

  • Flow facilitates getting out of our comfort zone. It’ll expand your boundaries of familiarity, allowing you to grow and discover new aspects of yourself, increasing self-esteem, and, in doing so, reducing anxiety and apprehension about life.  
  • When done with others, achieving flow in group settings optimizes relationships with others when achieving shared goals. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it helps create a shared reality: improving self-awareness in relationship to others.
  • Flow will improve your creative processes, critical in all aspects of life. In flow, you reach into your vast stores of knowledge (both physical and mental) and effortlessly draw insights and mastery that create a state of emotional well-being and competency.
  • HSPs can maximize growth potential with the loss of self-consciousness that flow brings. It allows you to expand in a non-judgmental way, which hurdles many HSP inhibitions.
  • According to Csikszentmihalyi, to control attention means to control experience. Attention acts as a filter to consciousness. Where you focus your attention is where you live. Use flow to focus on the positive nature of achievement.
  • Using flow to enhance even everyday mundane tasks can enliven your life. Achieving flow doesn’t require epic outcomes. Imagine how doing the dishes, cutting the grass, and cleaning the house can be attended to in a flow state if attention is placed in the right way. I call it the zen of doing stuff. (Try it. You’ll see!)
  • Flow can create a state of eustress, which is a positive cognitive response to stressors. Eustress comes when we are in the moment, focused and feeling exhilarated. Flow is a peak experience, challenging and blissful.
  • Flow changes our brain chemistry. We already knoverow that the HSP brain is different than the non-HSP brain. And, with a flow state, we experience pleasure-inducing and performance-enhancing chemicals. We feel good, and that is always a good thing.

So, as part of a comprehensive strategy of employing mindfulness activities, using flow experiences to engage our brains in dopamine-pumping, feel-good brain chemicals, we can better even out the highs and lows of our HSP experience. Flow provides a present moment, an active state where we can find self-esteem, accomplishment, loss of self-consciousness, and comfort zone growth. For HSPs prone to rumination, worry, anxiety, and feelings of being out of control, this can provide a needed boost in well-being and happiness. So get out there and lose yourself in an engaging and challenging task and get in the flow. I know I will.

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