Stress and Flow: The Synergy of Life

Stress & Flow - The Synergy of Life | Tyrron Whyte

In the Zone

"Uke" in Okinawan Karate, is a blocking technique that means to "receive" the force of the opponent. The "receiver" is also asked to move forward towards the opponent while "receiving" the impact of the blows 

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, (he) concentrates his mind wonderfully,”  – Samuel Johnson


The world is not created for our comfort. We are in a constant struggle trying to adapt to the constantly changing environment; and, in all this we need to make decisions. Some decisions are simple and straightforward, while others are quite complex. In every decision there is uncertainty, complexity and high-risk consequences coupled with various alternatives and interpersonal-issues. All of this together creates a brilliant recipe for stress. 

Stress is something that is bound to us for life. We may not like it and we also try to ignore it. However, we try we cannot get rid of it. It is as vital as any other response or reaction by the body, and it also ensures our survival.

The danger starts is when people promote shortcuts to eliminate stress. The market is flooded with self-help books that promises to eradicate your stress forever. The truth is that if we try to eliminate stress from our life we will end up dead. 

Stress is usually assumed to be caused due to “time-pressure”. It is not so. Research shows that stress is caused more when we take on an impression that we are losing time and when there is an unpredictable new situation. Stress can also happen when there is a threat to our ego or if we have or perceive a lack of control.

When stress become chronic, the brain and body is bombarded with a stress response each time. While the body finds it difficult to sustain it, our brain takes it on as a form of adaptation. When the brain is bombarded constantly by stress responses, it either produces a high level of cortisol or a break-down in the levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol mean that there is an onslaught of depression kicking in, and low levels indicate ‘burnout’. The problem really get complicated when we learn that this can happen even if we ‘imagine’ stress. The brain will bombard us with stress responses no matter if there is a ‘real’ or an ‘imaginary’ situation. So the best we can do is coach/train our brain to adapt quickly to each situation.

Hans Selyle, a pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist, divided stress into three parts: Distress, Neustress and Eustress. Distress is responsible for the anxiety, confusion and decreasing of your performance. Neustress has little impact on your body and is seen when you are watching and concentrating on a performance while the audience is just below your awareness radar. On the other hand, Eustress is the stress that inspires and motivates you to go beyond your present levels of functioning. “This is what happens in a high-pitched cricket match or other sports. The presence of an audience, combined with high stakes, motivates the athlete to unparalled performance. The same can be true for artists, actors, writers, and others who are required to perform under pressure. When the requirements of a task remain within human capability, some individuals can reach beyond what they ever thought was possible.” 1 This Eustress was further studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and he called this the state of flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi started his research into what makes one person happy at work while another feels totally miserable. His research shows that two people doing the same work tend to have different opinions of the work they do. The person who is in flow always excels at work and finds happiness in the job while the other is simply all stressed out.

Interestingly, the state of flow is also found on the same chart that includes apathy, boredom, worry, anxiety, relaxation, arousal and control. Each of those states are all considered to be stress producing states. He goes on to say that it is through stress that we find flow and happiness. In other words, flow an happiness is found during stress producing work and rarely otherwise. If there work does not cause any stress then we are really not happy.

Csikszentmihalyi isolated ten core components of the state of flow:

  1. Clear goals:Expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  2. Concentration:A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness:The merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time:One’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback:Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge:The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
  7. A sense of personal controlover the situation.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding,so action is effortlessness.
  9. lack of awarenessof bodily needs.
  10. Absorption:narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

The past three decades have witnessed an unprecedented growth in what researchers now term ultimate human performance. This is not the same as optimal human performance, and the difference is in the consequences. Optimal performance is about being your best; ultimate performance is about being your best when any mistake could kill.

In adventure sports like rock climbing, skydiving, snowboarding, surfing, motocross, windsurfing, cave diving, parkour etc., the number of records made are quickly broken within a very short span of time. The first big records seemed to have lasted a very long time, some even 10-40 years. However, records are broken every other month or year. “In this day and age,” says Michah Abrams, former senior editor for action sports, “The upper echelon of adventure sport athletes are grappling with the fundamental properties of the universe: gravity, velocity and sanity.  They’re toying with them, cheating death, refusing to accept there might be limits to what they can accomplish.”

Steven Kotler, in his book The Rise of Superman, goes on to say that, “Researchers now believe flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts.” Even in business, CEOs are looking for this concept in their work. Masaru Ibuka writes the first-purpose of Incorporation of Sony is “To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content. Anita Roddick the founder of BodyShop says, “Look for your passion. What makes you excited? What turns you on?…Go to companies that you really like, really admire…What do you admire about them? Spend if you can an internship there, or just knock on their door and say, “Hey, can I work her for cheap?”…Find organisations that move your spirit if you can. Work alongside them…And have fun…There is so much fun to be had…When you spend 95 percent of your life in a work environment, it can be dour (gloomy).”

People tend to report “flow” situations more frequently at work than during leisure. When at work and on the job, people are using their skills and are being challenged, therefore they feel more happy, strong, creative and satisfied. In times of leisure, there is nothing much to do or achieve and so they are more sad, weak, dull and dissatisfied. And still we find people yearning for more leisure than spend time at work. This yearning for leisure is because we tend to avoid the evidence and quality of our immediate experience. We attach ourselves to a fantasy-work-environment and what work is supposed to be like. The worker begins to look at his work as an imposition and limiting their freedom and so tries to avoid it. The stress and exhaustion is not due to being physically or mentally exhausted but more due to the relations of the worker with his job and the way they perceive their goals in relation to it.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”




Resources and Bibliography

  1. Stress Management and Prevention: Applications to Daily Life – Jeffrey Kottler, David Chen)
  3. The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler
  4. Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
  5. Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
  6. Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


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About Tyrron Whyte

Tyrron is the Editor and owner of the literature & arts website Indian Review - He likes spending time on Indian Review and writing articles for publications, training, coaching and sharing
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