How Flow State and The Nervous System Interact

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Flow state can lead to relaxation and relief from chronic pain.

By Celine Tien

Most people have experienced flow state at some point in their lives, but more often they named that experience as something similar to being “in the zone.” In a previous article, we established how powerful flow state can be. It has the ability to quiet your mind, relax you, generate dopamine, and enhance your focus. Simply put, flow feels good.

Flow state is both a physiological and psychological state, therefore, it can be beneficial for individuals in pain or with anxiety. Flow can provide routine opportunities for those individuals to activate physiological responses in their body that result in deep relaxation, a sense of security and calm, and focus outside of the immediate pain or anxiety they may be experiencing. 

To further understand how flow state can affect an individual’s physiology and psychology, we need to first understand the autonomic nervous system (ANS). 

What is the ANS? 

The nervous system is a major system in your body that controls, regulates, and communicates various parts of your body with one another. The nervous system has a heavy physiological responsibility because it is responsible for regulating and maintaining homeostasis in the body. Furthermore, it also houses the center of all mental activity, thereby directly affecting your psychology through thought, learning, and memory. 

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is part of your nervous system. The ANS is made up of two primary branches: the sympathetic system (fight, flight, or freeze mode) and the 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.

How is ANS related to flow state? 

The goal of flow state is to create 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 so that you feel relaxed and restored. 

In other words, flow state is the optimal balance between your sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest-and-recover”) system. However, for individuals, that optimal balance will look very different and be achieved differently. Everyone’s nervous system lives on a varying spectrum of sympathetic to parasympathetic day-to-day. 

Chronic pain and ANS

The majority of people with chronic pain or chronic conditions have trouble regulating the two branches of the ANS. Oftentimes, 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, and then cannot re-engage their parasympathetic system to rest and recover. 

Many chronic pain patients struggle to pare down their sympathetic tone to relax and restore through an activated parasympathetic system. When we work with pain patients on entering flow state, we aim to activate as much of their parasympathetic system as possible. When the pain patient’s parasympathetic system becomes more active, we are essentially bringing their nervous system closer to homeostasis and therefore, closer to flow state.

Flow state can appear to be an elusive physiological and psychological state to achieve. However, there are many studied techniques and approaches to voluntarily engaging flow state in individuals. Check back on Friday for our next article that explores methods of activating flow state on command. 

U.S. Pain does not endorse or recommend the use of any particular product, medication, procedure or therapy.  Information is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical condition and appropriate treatment.

Celine Tien

About the Author

Celine Tien is the founder of Flowly: relaxation training, a mobile platform that combines virtual reality and biofeedback training to help individuals transition from pain state to flow state. Tien is also Principal Investigator on National Institute on Drug Abuse-backed clinical trials at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and USC. 

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