Ask a Therapist: Finding ‘Flow’ Amid the Stressors of a Slow Re-Opening

by Liz Covey, LMHC

Question: I am going crazy trying to figure out what I am allowed to do right now, versus last month. And being recently fully vaccinated makes it all the harder to figure out. Especially with others who may or may not be, such as strangers in the park. How on earth am I supposed to cope with all this stress of not knowing??

Dear Reader,

Every year as tax season approaches, I thank my Creator that I, a self-employed person with terrible math skills, was born into a family of business-minded people who are generous with their skills. My father, a retired businessman, appears in my doorway each early April, weighed down heavily with office gear and ready to get to work. 

But this year was a little different, in just the ways your question implies.

My dad arrived at our house this April as usual, and we met him with joyous greetings. But when he shucked his mask and lunged to hug us, shouting hosannas about being vaccinated, we all recoiled in fear.

“Are we allowed to … touch?” my oldest daughter asked me, wide-eyed. I shrugged, then got to Googling. Within a few minutes, all of us adults agreed to terms, and we found our way. But it was tense there for a while, and I can’t say that the visit was unaffected by it.

We are asked to learn the guidelines of the day that are likely not to last but that must be the social norms for now. And they may remain for some time, or they may not. Some people will follow them, and some will not. Where do each of us fall on this spectrum? And how often do we have to reassess and adjust? 

Nothing is normal now. This sentiment is so commonplace as to be utterly normal itself. However, until it’s not true, we are doomed to keep on repeating it.

This experience is one riddled with anxiety, as anyone without a degree in psychology can tell you. However, in an effort to better understand how, as you ask, we might “cope with all the not knowing” — an experience that won’t go away anytime soon as we duck and weave our way through the changing conditions of a diminishing COVID landscape — we might do well to discuss a concept that can help us make sense of what we are going through and might even help us to bolster what fortitude we may have left for the (hopeful) end of this debacle. The concept is one called flow.”

Flow is a state of mind and being that was originated by the Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology Movement of the 1980s and the author of the book with that very title. It refers to the optimal state — or more precisely, zone — in which one finds they are the most creative, productive, and even happy. It is the juncture where challenge and skill meet and where work and effort become joy and ease. 

Lest this sound to you, Reader, like an unrelated topic to your question, let me assure you that understanding the flow state can be crucial to coping with life’s ups and downs. This past year has been the opposite of joy and ease, owing to universally high rates of stress and unprecedented losses and changes. So we are well situated to discuss the importance of flow in regard to how we deal with hardship. 

First, it is important to note that one does not achieve flow in ideal conditions and neither does flow traffic in extrinsic motivations, meaning those things that offer incentives and rewards. Instead, the nature of the flow state itself is one of intrinsic motivation, indicating that it comes from that place within where we get our personal direction. Flow, then, stems from one identifying what gives them a sense of inspiration, purpose, or meaning and from there, taking action steps. Each of us, in hard times, can be helped by understanding that contentedness is, to some extent, an inside job. One that has to do both with identifying our deeper sources of motivation and with moving in the direction of realizing our potential toward that end.

Put simply, one’s ability to understand their own inner workings is key to dealing well with adversity. And Csikszentmihalyi would know a thing or two about suffering, hailing as he does from war-torn Eastern Europe in the 1940s and having been a prisoner of war in his homeland.

Another figure who has written about the flow state is Keith LaMar, author of Condemned and a man who has spent nearly 30 years in solitary confinement while awaiting the death penalty in an Ohio penitentiary. He describes how learning to read and to write has saved him from losing himself in the trauma that is our country’s beleaguered justice system. 

“My education, if you can call it that, has come from my own efforts,” he says in a Mother Jones magazine interview from 2020. He credits his three allotted bookshelves, filled with books, as providing him with connection and meaning. “[T]hese books are my community,” he says. “James Baldwin — I consider him like a family member.” He summarizes his own experience of flow when he says, “That’s the thing: When you’re thrown upon yourself, you realize you are more equipped than you realized.” So LaMar learned to read, and then he put pen to paper himself.

So Reader, as you consider the ups and downs and the all-turned-around feelings of this strange time, consider that you might already have an inner map for how to cope. And consider that perhaps the work of today isn’t finding your sure footing in external circumstances so much as it is in finding —  and cultivating — your personal flow state. If that’s too much of a stretch for now, see if you can simply reflect on the knowledge that you have intrinsic motivation within to discover and that there is a psychological benefit when your skills and gifts meet the world’s many challenges in one way or another. If Keith LaMar can find it in a cell on death row, I believe there is hope for all of us who walk free in the crisp air of a Seattle spring. With the cherry blossoms in bloom and the sun waking up from its winter slumber to surprise us as it does every year at this time with more and more light and warmth. Incrementally more with each passing day.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

📸 Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama (under CC BY 2.0 license).

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