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Lockdown anxiety: why achieving ‘flow’ could help to boost your wellbeing right now

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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A woman in a state of flow

Looking for a way to boost your wellbeing in lockdown? Here’s why the concept of flow – not mindfulness – could be the answer.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been looking for new ways to keep our anxiety and stress levels under control. With so much worry and uncertainty on our plates right now, it’s more important than ever that we take the time to take care of our mental health and wellbeing.

Ask anyone for advice on how to boost your wellbeing these days, and chances are they’ll mention mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness – defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” – has become a popular approach for dealing with issues such as stress and anxiety.

The premise is pretty simple: mindfulness meditations – like the ones offered by wellness apps such as Calm and Headspace – help you to be more “in the present” and notice the different thoughts and feelings going on inside your head. As a result, practising mindfulness can help you to feel more in touch with your emotions and get outside of your stressed or anxious mindset, giving you the space to think and reflect.

To cut things short, mindfulness is pretty great. But what if I told you there was another coping method that could be more effective in helping you handle your stress during the pandemic? Welcome, my friends, to the concept of flow. 

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According to a new study, practising flow could be the key to boosting your wellbeing during the pandemic. The study, Flow in the time of Covid-19: Findings from China, found that, for 5115 participants living in Wuhan under lockdown, practising flow made a significant difference to their wellbeing. So what is this brilliant technique?

Susan K. Perry, a social psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today and is the author of Writing in Flow and Loving in Flow, explains that “flow” refers to a state of mind we reach when we’re engaged in a certain activity.

“Flow is the word most often used to describe the state of mind that occurs when you are so deeply engaged in some activity that time seems to stop,” she explains. You need to feel challenged enough so you’re not bored, but not so challenged that you become frustrated to the point of wanting to stop what you’re doing.”

A woman painting
“Flow is the word most often used to describe the state of mind that occurs when you are so deeply engaged in some activity that time seems to stop.”

Chances are you’ve probably experienced flow before without even realising it. It’s that feeling you get when you’re “in the zone” – when you feel at your most productive and don’t struggle to engage with the task at hand. But how can this help to boost our wellbeing?

According to Perry, being in flow is so beneficial because it allows us to feel accomplished and productive, while also creating a sense of calm.

“Being in flow, first of all, feels really good,” she says. “Not when you’re in it, necessarily, but when you exit that state of mind. You feel as though whatever you accomplished came to you without extreme effort on your part. You may feel part of something larger than yourself, which is helpful in living a meaningful life. 

“It’s the opposite, in many ways, of jumping from thought to thought. You’re going deeper into yourself, in a way, into a calmer, more productive place.”

She continues: “When you make the initial effort to get involved in something, say writing a story or designing a garden, or practicing dance moves or the piano, or putting together a photo album you can be proud of, you automatically put aside ordinary daily fretfulness and worry.

“Flow gives your mind a break from all that everyday anxiety that you can’t do anything about anyway. And at the end of the day or week, you feel as though you have something to show for your effort.”

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It’s this aspect of flow which makes it the perfect wellbeing tool for the current crisis. While so many of us are spending more time at home, it can be difficult to feel like we’re able to achieve as much as we might have before the pandemic; this sense of stagnation can leave us feeling unmotivated. By practising tasks which produce a state of flow, we allow ourselves to escape this feeling of stagnancy by giving ourselves a sense of achievement. 

As Perry writes in a recent article for Psychology Today: “Longer periods of confinement and isolation tend to exacerbate worries and the stress of uncertainty, with little else to think about. But if people engage in activities where their attention is fully required, a long stretch of days and weeks under quarantine feels more tolerable.”

How to achieve a state of flow

Knowing about the benefits of flow is a great first step – but how can we achieve this state in order to reap those benefits?

In the simplest of terms, flow requires you to do something – to engage your mind in a particular challenge or task which gives you a certain sense of satisfaction. Typically, this means that activities such as watching TV or having a bath probably aren’t going to induce a state of flow. 

A puzzle
To achieve flow, complete a task which allows you to feel a sense of achievement without too much of a challenge.

Instead, achieving flow is about setting yourself a goal. This can mean different things for different people – while some might enjoy the challenge and eventual satisfaction of a creative task such as a painting or drawing, others might find the difficulty frustrating, and therefore fail to reach a state of flow. Tasks which help you to achieve flow can also include academic or mental challenges such as learning a language or completing a puzzle.

But what if you haven’t got time to introduce a brand new activity into your daily routine? In this case, Perry recommends reconfiguring your daily tasks and “finding the flow” in whatever you do.

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“Add some challenge into a task – figure out how to make it novel rather than the same old chore,” she explains.” It’s also important to find ways to arrange your environment in such a way as to make deep focus and flow possible. That may mean setting aside a time and a place where you will not be disturbed.

“I have found that different personalities enter and experience flow in various ways, so some, for example, have to ignore all phones and e-mail for a set period, while others learn to resume what they were doing immediately after a distraction breaks their flow. So play around with these ideas and learn what works for you.”

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