Since I’ve been sober, one way I combat cravings and curb anxiety is to engage in flow state activities. This is the scientific term (though I know it doesn’t sound that scientific) for being “in the zone,” when you’re so immersed in something that everything else fades to the background.
The Neuroscience of Flow States
This is not some woo-woo thing; in the past decade or so, neuroscientists have been studying people’s brains when in flow states and found tons of changes. A process called hypofrontality occurs; activity in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain involved in planning and higher cognitive functions—slows, so that processing becomes faster.
This is why when you’re “in the zone,” you don’t have to think too hard about what to do next; it feels more intuitive. As explained in Time Magazine, “This is one of the main reasons flow feels flowy—because any brain structure that would hamper rapid-fire decision-making is literally shut off.”
Other changes also quiet our brains. Brain waves move from fast-moving beta to a borderline between alpha and theta waves. Alpha is emitted when you’re in wakeful rest or daydreaming, and theta only shows up during REM sleep.
Another important change is that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in self-monitoring, is deactivated. Time Magazine again: “Since flow is a fluid state—where problem solving is nearly automatic—second guessing can only slow that process. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation.”
How Do You Enter a Flow State?
That all sounds great—but how do you reach this state? For one, put away your phone. External distractions can take you out of a flow state, or make it hard to get into one in the first place. Regular meditation can also help make it easier to enter flow states, because it trains your mind to be more present. It can help with focus and concentration.
If you don’t know what activities bring you into this state, it might be fun to experiment. If you come to the search with less focus on an outcome—which I know can be hard—that sense of playfulness may actually help you enter a flow state.
Which Activities Will Bring About a Flow State?
Pick activities that will be challenging, but not too challenging. Lean towards things you like to do; you’re unlikely to feel “in the zone” with something you don’t enjoy.
For instance, if you don’t care to learn about plants, gardening isn’t going to be very engaging for you. On the other hand, if you love music, learning an instrument or dancingmight bring you into a flow state. Listening to music itself may help you get there, as music can have meditative effects.
Flow states often come from engaging in skills we’ve practiced over and over, which is why we can do them without using our higher processing brain. For instance, I sometimes enter a flow state when I’m playing drums, but only when I’m playing beats I’ve practiced a lot, or improvising based on things I already know how to play. When I’m trying to read new drum notation or learn a complicated beat, I’m back in the higher cognitive processing part of my brain.
Reaching a flow state might take time and practice, but it can become a tool to help distract from cravings, reduce stress, and improve overall quality of life. Plus, if you find what brings you into the zone, you’ll know what to do when you’re bored.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. We offer recreational and expressive therapies, both of which can help you find what prompts flow states and brings you joy. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.