Go with the flow8:26, 17th October 2018
Have you ever experienced your ‘flow zone’ as a musician? Esther Hunt explains how you can develop resilience, manage anxiety and optimise performance with a few simple and practical techniques
Remember Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare? Both creatures are locked in a race to the finishing line, but the odds seem stacked in favour of the speedy hare. However, it’s a tale about resilience as the tortoise takes up the challenge and wins the race by sheer determination to keep going. We all face challenges, and how we respond to them is key. In this article I am going to offer some tips and ideas to help you unlock your potential, manage anxiety and find your ‘flow’.
I am part of a team that teaches professional resilience to music and performance students at the University of Chichester. Developing resilience not only helps students recover from set-backs, and withstand difficulties, but enables them to reach their goals so they can follow their career path with confidence. When we experience a stressful event, it can affect our creative flow, performance, and drive. So to begin, let’s explore how to enter the ‘flow zone’, a concept named by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which can help optimise performance, harness anxiety and propel us forward.
Imagine you are climbing a mountain; it’s a struggle, you are anxious and you feel tired – but you are determined to reach the summit. You’ve trained for months, you have the skills, and it’s a challenge you know you can overcome. As you press on, your mental focus increases, you become so absorbed you lose sense of time and space. Amazingly you reach the top, and instead of falling to your knees with exhaustion you feel alive and invigorated – and you want to do it all over again!
If this process sounds familiar then you may have already experienced ‘the flow zone’. The concept of flow, according to Csíkszentmihályi, refers to a mental state which is achieved when we fully immerse ourselves in an activity we enjoy and are good at. Musicians and athletes often experience flow when performing. During the activity they can experience a sense of intensified hyper-focus, often losing track of time as they become absorbed by the experience and use their skills to optimum effect. To experience this flow and reach peak performance, an activity will involve a challenge, which stretches our skills sets to a point just beyond our comfort zone.
The sense of challenge induces an anxiety response, which releases adrenalin into the blood stream. This hormone acts like a catalyst by increasing the body’s strength, heightening awareness whilst reducing our ability to feel pain. This set of responses can enable individuals to harness their anxiety so they experience a sense of exhilaration, control and pleasure called the flow state, leading to a greater sense of mastery in a given activity. Flow can help develop resilience and self-efficacy as the process encourages us to keep challenging ourselves as our skills develop. We can then re-enter the flow zone and re-experience the benefits of the flow state by extending our reach just a bit further each time.
If you are interested in learning more about the flow state and how you could use it to optimise your performance, then here’s a tip to help you reflect and focus on how you flow: think about an activity you enjoy and gain a sense of achievement from. (It could be cycling, running, singing, playing an instrument, or dancing).
- How do you feel when you are pursuing this activity? What are you thinking, experiencing, or feeling in your body? What do you notice happening when things are going well?
- Imagine how you would feel if you were there right now enjoying the moment.
- Hold those thoughts and feelings in your mind while you choose a photo or image on your phone which embodies or symbolises this experience.
- Use the image as a ‘touch stone’ to boost your confidence and remind yourself of your ‘flow feelings’.
Understanding performance anxiety
Students undertaking music and performance courses frequently experience high-levels of academic anxiety, magnified by auditions, assessments, concerts and performances. This is often referred to as performance anxiety, stage fright, or exam nerves and can have a devastating impact on a student’s ability to perform to a high technical standard. It can also induce an intense stress response leaving musicians feeling too overwhelmed to perform in front of others.
Understanding how we respond to stress is a key factor in helping manage anxiety and reaching ‘flow’. Our daily lives are peppered with stressful events and anxious moments. Stress is here to stay; and how we respond to stressful experiences can be pivotal to our success or demise. When we feel fearful, frightened or unsafe our bodies activate our innate survival responses known as ‘fight, flight or freeze’. Accurate and healthy stress responses can save your life, but at other times our perceived stress response may be inappropriate to the level of actual threat to our safety.
When the survival response is activated by a perceived or real threat we release a stress hormone called cortisol, which floods the bloodstream with glucose to raise energy levels. These reduce once the ‘threat’ has passed. However, if we undergo sustained periods of stress then the build-up of cortisol in our bodies can affect our mental health, memory and brain function and may lead to depression and anxiety. While Music exams are testing, they are not designed to be life-threatening events! Remind yourself that it’s natural to be nervous before an exam, audition or interview.
To optimise well-being and improve your performance, it’s important to find ways of relaxing and de-stressing. One way we can achieve this is by anchoring ourselves in the present moment and paying attention to our physical and psychological experience. Practicing mindfulness teach us to become aware and notice our thoughts and feelings as they are, without judgement. As we become more adept at noticing our responses we can learn to respond to stress and anxiety differently by bringing them into our awareness and accepting they are present. We can also become more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
Mindfulness helps us to recognise that feelings change like the weather, but we can stay present in rain or shine. My next tip is a breathing exercise which I use with students to help bring them in to the present moment, when they feel anxious or stressed.
- Find somewhere to sit where your back is erect and your feet are flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes or lower your gaze if that feels more comfortable.
- Then draw your attention to your breath, notice your breathing in and your breathing out.
- Not trying to change your breathing in any way, just allowing it to be as it is.
- If your mind has wandered then gently bring it back into the present moment.
- Bring awareness to your body supported by the chair and your feet firmly placed on the ground.
- Then open your eyes, or lift your gaze, and take in your surroundings.
My final tip is to ‘become the flow’: invest in activities which fulfil you, bring you joy, optimise your skills and release a sense of happiness. When you find your flow, it will inspire others to find theirs.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi.
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008
Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Danny Penman and Mark Williams