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  • Writer's picturesarahruhlen

Flow State

I like control. I like being able to plan, and figure out step by step what I’m going to do. I hate losing that control, for me it’s usually an indicator that something is going wrong.

There are several times when I lose control, and they carry certain similarities, but have vastly different feelings for me. The first of these is when I enter a flow state. That feeling of unconscious competence, or when I just trust myself to exist, to perform, and know that I am existing outside of a conscious control of every moment.

I think this is the absolute hardest place for me to access mentally. It almost has to be accompanied by a physical component. Something has to push me over some edge to make it a reality. Typically, I can reach a flow state in paddling, and it’s my favorite way to be. I have complete faith in myself and in my instincts. I don’t need to plan every moment, I know what needs to happen. In this case, I can enjoy the loss of control. The loss of control isn’t scary - it’s my entire self reverting to belief that I know what the hell I’m doing and I’ll work it out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the other loss of control, the one I dread. I’ve always struggled with anxiety, and specifically really bad panic attacks. Panic attacks are interesting, because we lose some function of the prefrontal cortex of our brain. The prefrontal cortex covers the front part of the frontal lobe of our brains, and is responsible for a lot of conscious decision making. It plans our cognitive behavior, expression of personality, decision making, and our social interactions and behavior. So what does it look like when that part of our brain stops sending messages to our body? For me, it’s almost like a reverse flow state. I revert to basic functions. I pick something I can try to control, like my breathing. I am conscious - but only of limited things - sensory feelings. I can feel my hands pressing into my knees, my legs to my chest, pressure in my back from the stretching of my body’s position. I’m not planning anything. I’ve lost control. The difference is that it’s not a conscious decision to lose control, it’s a slow descent into what feels inevitable. It’s this amoeba of panic and depression and numbness gradually creeping up from the edges until there isn’t much left.

The irony in the two ends of the spectrum is that the arrival of one inhibits the presence of the other. If I feel myself becoming anxious and know a panic attack is coming, I can often stave it off with a conscious decision to enter a flow state through physical activity. But if I am already having a panic attack, or severe anxiety, I find it pretty difficult to redirect and enter that flow state.

This year has been really hard, especially. It’s been hard for everyone, I know. I think we’ve all learned a lot about ourselves, and hopefully become more conscious. I’ve seen more people celebrating the small victories in life, and the appreciation for intricacies in life gives me a lot of hope. This year I’ve had a lot of physical limitations. In January I broke my back, and had 40% compression in T11 and T12 in my back. Quarantine hit right when I was at my most limited - in a brace, still struggling to get in and out of bed a lot of days. I spent a lot of time sleeping, and watching Netflix. Flow state was very limited. By May, thanks to my absolute magician of a PT, I was able to slowly get back out on the water. Man, I was so thankful. Spoiler alert - I cried. I spent the whole summer on the water teaching, and loved it. The physical exhaustion, the sharing of a sport and mindset, the simplicity of the schedule - get up, go to work, teach, eat, sleep, repeat - it was all sort of a flow state. Then I got a chemical burn on my leg, which has knocked me out of the game again. A game I desperately want to be in. It’s my favorite time of year. All my favorite rivers are running. All my friends are kayaking. I worked really, really freaking hard to be able to boat what I wanted to this Fall. Outside of being bummed about missing my favorite things, there’s the fear that I won’t be able to again. I’ve managed to avoid needing a skin graft - barely. But I still have 6 weeks of recovery. No water, no getting it wet. No running. No hiking. Keep it elevated. My leg is weak. I am weak. I can’t even hike in to the rivers to watch my friends. Where the hell do I find flow state?

Typically, when I’ve been injured in the past I’ve always turned to media for finding a flow state. It’s something where I can just trust myself to do what I know, and I can share how I see the world. I can show what I love. I remember talking with one of my friends once about another friend’s recent photos, and remarking how I could tell that he loved this girl just by the way he took pictures of her. They’re married now. I want to show that in my media - the places and people and things I love, and how they shape a world. That’s a flow state too. When I go to shoot a project, I usually have this overall vision in my head. It’s a sort of state of being, or all around consciousness of how the people and the place and the time make me feel. Often I’ll make a playlist and have it going the whole time. I purposely push myself to try to recreate the existence I get to have. One of my favorite artists has this song, Beige. “Tell people what color they make you feel.” I can do that. I don’t think about it, I just know.

So. I can’t access these flow states. It’s 2AM on a Wednesday and I feel the panic attack coming. What can I do? I can’t do attainments until I’m physically exhausted. I can’t run until I’ve alleviated feelings.

I’ve been trying to find alternates. It’s harder than I would’ve thought. Consciously or unconsciously we build coping mechanisms and defenses throughout our lives. Some people practice avoidance (me, sleeping inordinate amounts of time when I’m stressed), or bury their heads in the sand. Some people isolate - for them that is a safe place. I isolate because I’m not comfortable telling people I’m not okay. I have a need to please, and that doesn’t play in. I have a need for control, and hate showing that I’ve lost it. Some people get angry, some get quiet. Some people just try to find ways to forget. I went through a phase where I would just paddle hard whitewater to fight it. Recklessly.

Recently, I’ve started painting. I’ve started playing piano and singing again. They create a state of being, a color in which I view the world. They can show how I feel. I can let go of things - and trust myself to just do. I have a friend that writes really beautiful and truthful poetry. I think finding a way to give voice to what we’re feeling is an important way to both establish and accept the lack of control in hard situations. If I can name what’s going on in my head, it is a conscious action. Sometimes, it’s scary as hell. To say “I’m feeling depressed, and like I’m behind in everything I want, and that I have no feasible way of doing what I wish I could right now” is harsh, and feels hopeless. But it’s still an act of taking ownership. For me, that feels like a step away from just reeling in the unconscious, uncontrolled vortex of panic and anxiety. It’s an organization of thought, one which can be attacked, slowly and surely.

When I’m having trouble accessing flow on the river, I chase it in a really similar way. First, I take ownership of what I’m feeling. “I’m scared, because I haven’t done a rapid like this before, and last time I did a new rapid and messed it up I swam.” I try to break it down piece by piece, like I often do for students. Okay, I could flip. But, I can roll. Even if I don’t make my roll, what does a swim mean here? Can I mitigate risks in any way? Is swimming hazardous, or am I more scared of what people will think? If so, maybe I’m not paddling with the right people, or maybe their expectations aren’t accurate. Next, what will happen if it goes well? Beyond just visualization of the line and physical execution, I think it’s important to visualize the emotional outcome as well. Flood your brain with a carrot on a stick of endorphins and joy. Finally, trust yourself to know what you know. Self talk is important. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a line after telling myself that I wouldn’t miss it, and that I knew I could execute it. But, when I let the doubt creep in - it doesn’t matter how capable I am, I almost always have a worse line.

I think as a woman, it can sometimes be different on the water when it comes to mental game. It doesn’t have to be, but we have to train ourselves a bit differently. It’s not exclusive to women either, but I find it more prevalent. Biologically, we’re programmed to be more cautious. We don’t need to impress potential mates with our strength and valor. We have to make sure we don’t do anything stupid and get ourselves killed so we can’t take care of the offspring, resulting in the dying out of our species. Biologically. This self preservation instinct is dang useful, but also can nag at us when we’re trying to push ourselves. It’s why we tend to evaluate harder, and take more time to look at risk versus reward when trying something new. We are driven to seek out the activities that provide us with dopamine. Those are different for everyone, and in an effort to avoid making sweeping generalizations, I won't say that one sex gets theirs' one way while the other gets theirs' in another - I think it depends on the individual. How has a person trained themselves, how have they been conditioned? What kind of self talk is present, what kind of external dialogue is happening? It seems like such a perfect storm sometimes, to be able to create a rewarding system.

My personal theory is that in life, most often things go wrong because of a disconnect between expectations and reality. When we expect one thing, whether of the world, others, or ourselves, and then the outcome is different - it’s disappointing to say the least. For me, that’s usually what triggers me to start a downward spiral. As long as I can have reasonable expectations, and then find them to mostly become a reality, then I’m not too thrown off. I hate being blindsided though. Having an expectation or assumption, to have it blown out of the water. It hurts, whether it’s me, personally at fault, or having it happen with another person. And sometimes, the world just kicks your ass. Repeatedly. There’s a breakdown between expectation, and reality. I try to remember that a lot of times things just happen, but I can also try hard to be clear in my expectations. I don’t always like to be - again, I’m a people pleaser. I don’t like to say no, or say I expect a certain treatment or method of interaction. Sometimes, I don’t even like saying I have a certain expectation of myself, in case the reality is that I can’t make it happen. It’s a weird world we live in where we have this balancing act between what we think is going to happen, and reckoning it with what really does. The only time I’m really not thinking about it is in that flow state. I think that’s what makes it such a crucial part of my life, and why I seek it. I need to find a flow state to make the disparity between expectations and reality more trivial, or even to change one or the other to lessen the gap. Personally, it’s why I have to keep chasing it down.


Here's what I've been doing. My personal flow state.


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