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A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder, Part 6: Find Flow

This is the sixth in a series of 26 posts covering a variety of stress management tools and techniques, starting with the letter A. For some background information on stress and bipolar disorder, the blogger recommends reading her three-part series, “Getting a Handle on Stress When You Have Bipolar Disorder,” starting with Part 1

Welcome to the A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder. In this series I will give you a wide variety of stress management tools and techniques to try. Some go hand and hand, while others may appear contradictory—for example, changing your thoughts and accepting your thoughts can both work. Everyone is different. There will probably be some methods you like and some that don’t work for you. A particular tool or technique may work better in some situations than in others. Keep an open mind, experiment, and discover what helps most. 

And now for “F”: Find Flow 

Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time? Tuned out the sights and sounds around you? Even forgot about yourself for a bit? That’s what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as flow (ironically, his name does not flow—but in case you’re interested, here’s how you pronounce it). Flow, also known as engagement or being “in the zone,” is part of positive psychology. Positive psychology is concerned with maximizing people’s satisfaction in their lives, rather than focusing only on pathology.

Flow is an experience of deep absorption in an activity, in which you and the activity you’re doing become inseparable. It involves an optimal balance of challenge and skill. In other words, you’ll find flow when a task is difficult but you have the skills to rise to the occasion. Flow has many benefits. It can lower stress and reduce rumination by getting you focused on something other than your own thoughts. It can increase positive feelings in your life—though not necessarily during the flow activity—and it can improve your life satisfaction. Flow may also help you increase persistence and achievement in artistic, athletic, and other pursuits.

Flow experiences can be:

  • Physical (playing sports, dancing, doing yoga)
  • Creative (singing, painting, writing)
  • Mental (studying, playing chess, playing video games)
  • Social (teaching, coaching, speaking)

To get the most out of flow:

  • Choose an activity in which you have adequate skills.
  • Choose an activity in which the difficulty level is aligned with your current skill level.
  • Pick an activity you want to do for intrinsic satisfaction—not because you have to do it or because you’ll get an external reward.
  • Choose something which gives you immediate feedback—in other words, have a goal for your session and a way of knowing whether you’re reaching it.
  • Select a time and place free from distractions.

Flow often involves an activity you practice regularly, which means that you have to adjust your challenge and skill levels continually to remain in flow. Csikszentmihalyi put it this way: "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills."

Let’s say you are learning how to paint. When you start out, your skill level will be low, so you will need to keep the challenge level on the low side (for example, painting a simple scene using a small canvas and just a few colors). As your skill level improves, you’ll need to continue increasing the challenge level in order to get into flow (for example, painting more complicated scenes or learning a new painting technique).

A Word to the Wise

Contrary to popular belief, flow experiences are not inherently positive. In fact, they can become addictive; video game addiction is a good example. Flow experiences can be life-enhancing, and can possibly even help you overcome depression, but too much of a good thing can cause you to escape responsibility or neglect self-care. Flow experiences can also become substitutions for solving problems in your life head on.

Some artists, as an example, report that they stay up all night or forget to eat when they’re in flow. Those of us with bipolar disorder can’t make that a habit—sleep and self-care are too important for our well-being. One way to deal with the double-edged sword of flow is to set boundaries. For example, you can choose a specific chunk of time for a flow activity and set a timer.

My personal experience: Flow experiences have been a key part of my mental health recovery. They help me cope with stressors, especially the ones I can’t control. They ease depression. They bring meaning and fulfillment to my life. I experience flow in several areas. One is when I’m doing a therapy session with a client. I often become so engaged in a session that my perception of time is thrown off. I’ll think 20 or 30 minutes have gone by, but when I glance at the clock I realize that the 50-minute session is almost over.

Another one of my flow activities is writing. When I get into the flow of writing, I enter another world and forget everything else. It’s impossible to ruminate when I’m in that space, so I can let stressors go for a while. But for me, writing is one of those activities I can become too absorbed in. If left to my own devices, I would write for hours and hours at time—but I’ve learned over the years that I need to aim for balance by setting limits and taking breaks.

Other flow experiences for me are photography, singing, and watching certain documentary films (you can actually get into flow watching TV or movies—but only if you’re watching something that challenges you).

How to start: Choose an activity you want to do, one that that is challenging but not so difficult that it’s frustrating. Do the activity for 20 to 30 minutes (it takes about 15 minutes to reach a state of flow). Notice how you feel afterward.

If you think flow might enhance your life, add some flow activities to your schedule this week. Tracking your moods (for example, with a mood chart) will give you an idea how these activities affect you.

Additional resources: Csikszentmihaly has a book, Flow, and a TED talk. If you want to learn more about positive psychology in general, you can read Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.

You can find the rest of Carrie’s IBPF posts here or read additional articles on her Addiction.com blog. You can also visit the website for Counseling and More, her private practice, or Bipolar Beast, a company designed to empower people with bipolar disorder.

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