February is Heart Health Month. Entire libraries of books and articles have been written about dealing with cholesterol, exercise, smoking and blood sugar as ways to prevent or reverse heart disease. Physical, mental and chemical stressors are implicated in heart disease. Psychological stress, in all its forms, can be counteracted by “getting in the flow”. People can and do experience flow daily. Perhaps one of the best ways to improve heart function is to resolve to get in the flow.
Flow is a state of optimal experience characterized by immense joy that makes life worth living. Research into flow was started by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970’s. This phenomenal state of being has many health benefits, particularly concerning its effect on the heart. Flow takes our focus from thinking about ourselves, negative thoughts concerning current events, and worries about friends and family. It allows us to focus on things that are engaging and rewarding.
Flow has been described by Professor Richard Huskey from UC Davis as “being in a state of intense concentration when thoughts are focused on something other than oneself.” In flow “we are absorbed in a highly rewarding activity - not our inner monologues.” In flow we merge with and are in control of the process, often losing a sense of time. Researchers using brain scanning techniques confirm reports that flow is not mentally or physically taxing. In fact, it is highly rewarding and even invigorating.
How does one experience flow? It occurs when one engages in activity that challenges one’s skill. It requires a certain level of skill applied to a significant challenge. Csikszentmihalyi studied people like athletes, musicians, and dancers. Ordinary people experience flow in everyday life while skiing, running, meditating, doing yoga, making art or music, even cooking. As long as there is significant challenge addressed by someone with a skill set flow will occur.
Playing games is another way to experience flow. Certainly, physical games are a way to get in flow. Taking a break to do something fun can be incredibly healthy and rejuvenating. While most video games don’t get us into flow, Huskey, along with colleagues Rene’ Weber and Jacob Fisher have developed a video game called Asteroid Impact that in fact does. Their brain research shows that playing this video game activates brain networks that require only small amounts of energy. This may be part of the reason that even flow experiences that require large amounts of physical input like snowboarding, gardening, construction projects, etc. leave us invigorated, not fatigued.
Resolve to make being in the flow on a very regular basis one of the most important goals. In addition to supporting your health (including your heart) getting in the flow regularly can support your other long-term goals making you more productive and creative. You can become a much more proficient artist, musician, chef or even gamer. Done right this type of resolution doesn’t become one more obligation, in fact it can help free you from the drudgery and stress of everyday life.
Dr. Daniel Gleason
Much of this article was inspired by a posting in theconversation.com, a free online resource available to all.
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