Last year, I embarked on the biggest endurance swim challenge of my life: I was attempting to swim the length of Lake Memphremagog, a 25-mile swim that starts in Newport, Vermont, and ends in Magog, Quebec, Canada.
This decision led to many questions, especially among my non-swimming friends. The most common questions were, “Why are you doing this?” and “How can you swim for nearly 12 hours straight?” Two years ago, I would have asked myself these same questions. But since I started swimming more regularly, I found something in the water that I continue to seek: a synthesis between mind and body. I feel at one with the water when I am swimming, and I experience a sense of transcendence, a quietness in my mind and a perceived sense of control over the conditions that I am faced with (e.g., wind, waves, currents). It also helps me set mindful intention on reaching a goal.
At midnight on Aug. 20, 2022, I reached the sands of Magog, Quebec, Canada. As I stood upright for the first time in nearly 12 hours, I felt as though I “woke up” to a more confident, self-assured and empowered version of myself.
What I experienced in the water is referred to as “psychological flow,” a cognitive state where a person is completely immersed in an activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist, discovered this optimal state of being through his research with a variety of different individuals, including artists, athletes and CEOs. Csikszentmihalyi argued that flow states can be induced in different contexts, including everyday life tasks such as cooking, cleaning, walking and drawing as well as more extreme and high-performance sports and activities.
The physical and mental effects
Psychological flow is sometimes referred to as being “in the zone” or “in a trance.” During a state of flow, one is fully engaged and focused on the task at hand; concentration is at an all-time high. This mind state leads to optimal performance and performing beyond one’s typical expectations, physical strength and sometimes what society deems as humanly possible. Serena Williams, who is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, often described herself as “being in the zone” after matches, and Danny Way, an American professional skateboarder, also found himself in this state of flow when he successfully completed a death-defying feat — doing a skateboard jump over the Great Wall of China with a broken ankle.
Csikszentmihalyi brilliantly describes the flow state as existing between the state of boredom and anxiety. In this sweet spot, a person can find a task that is personally challenging yet not so much that it causes frustration or anxiety. For example, if I had attempted the 25-mile swim when I was just starting out as a swimmer, then I would have found it too difficult or frustrating. But because I have been swimming most of my life and have increased my training in swimming long distances over the past few years, this event was a significant challenge for me, but it was also within my skill set.
Psychological flow can also alter a person’s perception of time — causing time to feel like it is moving faster or standing still. When I was swimming the 25-mile stretch in Lake Memphremagog, I was in the water for nearly 12 hours, but it felt as though I was in the water for only two hours. I have also experienced this time warp in my private practice with clients. Some days, when I am focused and composed, I may see clients for eight straight hours, but it feels as though only an hour has passed.
Psychological flow can make people perceive that they have complete control over their environment, which, in turn, causes feelings of self-consciousness to melt away and be replaced with feelings of satisfaction, increased self-esteem and confidence. And this feeling often occurs regardless of the outcome because psychological flow is autotelic; the experience of the activity is the main goal, not the outcome or achievement.
Steve Kotler, an expert on human performance and the executive director of the Flow Research Collective, has researched the neurobiological impacts of psychological flow and found that the brain is also affected by the flow state. For example, individuals who are in a flow state also experience hypofrontality, a decrease in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. When the prefrontal cortex is suppressed, the implicit brain (or unconscious memory) takes over, allowing more areas of the brain to communicate freely and more creatively. According to Kotler, states of flow also appear to alter brain waves and neurochemistry within the brain. These neurobiological changes prime the brain for the flow state to be activated.
Although people may experience positive emotions and physiological relief when performing the activity, the psychological benefits of flow exist far beyond the completion of the task. Csikszentmihalyi has noted several long-term benefits of flow, including increases in skill development, overall wellness, life satisfaction, emotional regulation, motivation, and intrinsic motivation and decreases in anxiety and depression. Kotler has also found that individuals who regularly engage in flow states are happier overall, and he believes that for some individuals, flow states can also serve as a major component to healing trauma.
Using flow in session
Although there are several benefits associated with psychological flow, there is not much in counseling literature on this concept or ways to use psychological flow as a counseling technique or intervention. I believe the counseling profession would benefit from taking a deeper look at how to integrate psychological flow within the counseling arena.
As a practicing professional counselor, I have introduced the concept of flow to a range of clients from different backgrounds. I have found that integrating flow-based work is also beneficial for clients struggling with depression and anxiety, and it can serve as a healing mechanism for clients with a trauma history. The flow state often creates a phenomenon where time slows down and allows anxious, intrusive thoughts or painful memories from the past to decrease or diminish. There is also a heightened focus on the present moment within a flow state, which can be soothing for clients struggling with these mental health issues. In fact, when using clinical exercises that stimulate this flow state, I have often heard clients says, “This is the only time when my brain shuts down and my thoughts are quiet” or “I have never felt so calm, and I want to experience more of that.”
The following paragraphs provide suggestions on how counselors can incorporate psychological flow into their work with clients who may benefit from its physical and mental effects. These suggestions are informed by the literature and my own clinical work.
Provide psychoeducation. Counselors can educate their clients on the concept and benefits of flow, including how it helps decrease levels of anxiety and depression and is beneficial for trauma work. I often recommend clients read Kotler’s The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance or Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. There are also several online resources that describe and define flow, such as Ryan Howell’s “Finding ‘flow’ this week” (published in Psychology Today in 2012) and Kendra Cherry’s “5 things you can do to achieve flow” (published on the Verywell Mind website in 2020).
Introduce activities with your client around focus/concentration. One integral component of flow is learning to completely focus on the task at hand to the point that the surrounding world and the concept of time melts away. Thus, mindfulness activities, including meditation, could help prime the client’s brain to be ready to induce states of flow. Additionally, helping a client find or create the right environment — one free of distractions — can help to induce flow. For example, if a client is working on a drawing or painting, the counselor can help them purposefully and intentionally find a space in their living environment where they aren’t consistently interrupted by noises, people or other distractions.
Brainstorm activities to induce flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow can exist between the space of boredom and anxiety. So counselors can brainstorm with clients and find an activity that is both within their skill level and challenging for them. If the activity is too easy, then the client may experience a lack of interest and focus, and, conversely, if the task is too difficult, they may experience feelings of acute stress and anxiety, which would prevent their brain from getting into the flow state.
Choose activities that provide immediate feedback. Csikszentmihalyi said that to activate the flow state, we must choose tasks that have a clear goal and provide us with immediate feedback. Therefore, the activity the client chooses cannot be passive; it needs to be something they can actively participate in, such as drawing or running. Counselors can work with clients to help them find an activity that works well for them. Often, this process takes time and trial and error. After selecting an activity, counselors can also help clients create attainable and realistic goals. For example, if a client chooses to paint a picture, then the counselor could ask them, “What did you learn from engaging in this activity that caused you to change how you are approaching it?” Or if the client chooses to go running, then they could ask, “Was there any time in your run when you changed your gait or the way you approached the activity based on your experience while running?” In our results-driven culture, many of our clients will come to us with an outcome-based mindset, meaning that success is marked by the achievement of a task or by meeting particular benchmarks or expectations. Therefore, as counselors we must be careful not to conflate psychological flow with goal-based achievements.
Create space in the session for flow-based activities. During the counseling session, a drawing or writing activity may help induce flow. Counselors can spend part of the session educating the client on the concept and psychological benefits of flow and then spend the latter part of the session reflecting on the process that emerged during the activity.
Use guided reflection. After a client chooses an activity with goals, it would be helpful to have them reflect on the process. For example, counselors can ask their clients the following questions:
- How did you feel during the activity?
- What barriers, if any, got in the way of you achieving a flow state?
- What was your experience of time?
- What was your experience of yourself during the activity?
- What level of control did you feel you had over the task?
- Was the task too easy or too hard? If so, what changes (if any) would you need to make to help you attain a flow state?
- Can you think of ways you can consistently induce states of flow into your everyday life?
Helping clients achieve flow states
I often use these techniques of incorporating flow states with my clients, including Julia (a pseudonym). Julia started counseling because of her high levels of anxiety and depression. She described herself as a “neurotic person who cannot get out of her own head.” Often, her anxiety would be paralyzing and prevent her from completing tasks at work or making simple decisions such as what kind of toothpaste to buy or what she wanted to eat for lunch. She seemed to oscillate between moments of extreme anxiety and depressive states where she said her “brain was tired” from working too hard.
Early in our work, I presented the concept of psychological flow to Julia and assigned readings for her to learn more about the topic. She said she was open to trying anything to help her feel better, so we started doing regular meditation exercises during sessions and reflected on the experience and the challenges that the activities presented for her.
As Julia became more comfortable with meditation, we then talked about selecting an activity to practice flow-based work. She defined herself as a creative person who liked to “doodle,” so to induce a flow state, I presented her with various drawing activities that matched her skill level yet were also a bit challenging for her. Together, we found that drawing mandalas allowed her mind to slow down, which eventually let her get into a flow state. In addition to drawing during her counseling session, Julia also chose two nights a week outside of session to draw.
After several weeks of drawing regularly, Julia reported that she looked forward to having time in the evening to relax her mind and that she was “not feeling trapped” in her head like she was before. Although the flow-based activities were not a panacea for her anxiety and depressive symptoms, we found that psychological flow became an effective and useful coping strategy for her symptoms.
Research shows that flow states often help create a positive mental state for people, and it can also be a creative and helpful antidote for depression and anxiety and an effective way to treat clients with a history of trauma. The benefits for our clients are multifaceted.
In addition, because the demands of the counseling field are ever-changing and constant, counselors can benefit from incorporating flow in their own lives to help combat the potential for burnout, stress and vicarious trauma. Psychological flow has made a big impact on improving my psychological health and well-being.
Laurie Marie Craigen is a licensed mental health counselor, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University Chobanain and Avedesian School of Medicine, and an endurance athlete. Her clinical work focuses on trauma, grief, anxiety and depression, and high-performance athletes. Contact her at email@example.com.
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