Finding Flow Just May be the Antidote to Quarantine Brain

I figured out what my brain is like right now. It is like a rock on the banks of a fast-running stream. Leaves, twigs, branches, logs, even fish and birds pass by, but I have no way of catching them. So, I don’t go anywhere, but still I race after them. It is exhausting to go nowhere, but still be scurrying.

When you are learning mindfulness, there is an exercise where you imagine yourself sitting by a peaceful stream. As thoughts come up, you imagine them as leaves floating by. The idea is that no matter what type of thought comes by, you let it go.

You don’t try and rush bad thoughts past quickly, or hold on to happy thoughts. Instead all thoughts are treated the same. The idea is that you distance yourself from the constant flow of thoughts.

Leaves in a stream

Instead of distancing myself, while in isolation since the pandemic began, I’m finding that I want to grab on to every thought that passes by. And with all the news, advice, and constant buzz, there is a lot to hold on to.

The Science Behind Quarantine Brain

While looking at a stream seems relaxing, it can also become monotonous. At first, it’s really nice to just watch the water. You think, I’ve never had time just to sit and watch the water. But watching a stream 24-7 can get really boring. After a while, you are pretty sure you’ve seen that exact same leaf, branch, and twig, in the same order before.

If you’ve been staying inside for a month or so and limiting contact with others outside your immediate bubble, that might sound familiar. You are probably starting to wonder just how long you’ve been staring at that darn stream.

And there’s a real reason for it. Your brain perceives time not by the hours spent, but by how it feels. Without variety and nothing to look forward to, one day is exactly like the next and the next and the next.

Finding Flow Not Distraction

While most of us aren’t so lucky to be isolating near a beautiful stream, our brain is likely still working to find ways to distract itself during this time. Ruminating on the news and stopping to focus on every fact that comes our way is one way our brain likes to keep itself busy, and part of the reason my mind and (maybe yours too?) has been so scattered over the past weeks of safer at home.

But finding things to do where the mind actually forgets all that stuff is even better. The way to do that is to find something that puts you in a state of flow.

Csíkszentmihályi’s perceived challenge-skill ratio.

If you’ve ever found yourself doing something where you were completely immersed and in the moment, you’ve experienced a sense of flow. Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow is different for different people. Here are some ways people experience this wonderful state of mind:

  • Playing music
  • Engaging in sports
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Creating something
  • Cooking or baking
  • Meditation

I experience flow when I am writing. I also was aching to do something creative last week. I am not artistic in the sense of being able to draw realistically, but I like to play with art, so I decided to collage. I created the collage below and found myself completely involved in the process. Since I had been spending so much time on my computer, it was refreshing to do something with my hands.

It is different than when I am doing something like watching television, which is a good respite for the brain, but depending on what I am watching does not engage it in the same way. According to Csíkszentmihályi that is more related to a sense of apathy, where challenge and skill level are both low.

Read more about flow and see a TED talk with Csíkszentmihályi.

Some of the Dimensions of a Flow State

  • Feeling challenged, but accomplished
  • Focused attention
  • Enjoyment
  • No effort to keep your mind on what you are doing
  • Feeling competent
  • Not concerned with how you look
  • Skill matches the challenge
  • Spontaneous action
  • Time seems to slow

What do you do to immerse yourself? How do you find flow? Have you noticed yourself getting interested in new things during this pandemic?

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  1. Brandi

    Love this! I have a state of flow from writing, but being with my kids has completely kept me in the present moment. I actually feel less stressed than I was before the pandemic because of it.

    • Catherine Lanser

      Thank you! That is great to hear. I know lots of people feel stressed because of new expectations around family, but I imagine keeping expectations in check can keep stress in check too.

    • Catherine Lanser

      Thank you! I ordered some more midge lodge and am going to try and transfer my collage into canvas. I don’t even care if it works, I just need the distraction and to be absorbed.

  2. Alex

    I’ve just started making some wirework jewellery. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried it but I am loving creating something with my hands. That and reading seem to be the two things that allow me to close my mind off to the world for a short time. #MMBC

    • Catherine Lanser

      I made jewelry a long time ago. That sounds fun right now. I bought a mosaic kit and am going to give that a go.

  3. Justin Florey

    I started biking to work with the warmer weather and there is definitely a flow to the physicality and rhythm of that. I wish I could read a novel but I just read news articles about the pandemic. Anyway, good essay. It seems there is a lot of inattention to the mental side of this struggle.

    • Catherine Lanser

      Thanks. The things that I can focus on are limited so things with some physical component do seem better. We got the bikes out this weekend and though I normally don’t love it, I found it relaxing. What’s up is down …

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