Flow State and Polyvagal Theory

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Flow state is considered to be the optimal state for human performance.  Understanding the overlap with polyvagal theory can be helpful in more easily accessing this state.

Flow state is characterized by being fully immersed in whatever activity one is currently engaged in, including full focus and concentration, loss of recognition of the passage of time, and what is variably described as an effortless ability to perform necessary tasks.  This typically corresponds to performing at our highest level.  Flow state, also termed ‘the zone’ by athletes, is widely recognized as the optimal state for human performance.  In order to be at our best in any chosen area of life, the ability to more readily and efficiently access this state is highly desirable.

Steven Kotler is one of the most extensive writers and experts on the topic of flow.  He has described several triggers for accessing flow state which can be broadly categorized as internal factors and external factors, the latter being further divided into environmental and group triggers.  In addition, Kotler has described the neurochemicals affecting flow state, including dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and anandamide.  On the basis of the identified flow triggers and the underlying neurochemistry, he has recommended several strategies to increase the likelihood of accessing flow state, thereby optimizing human performance.

Applying the paradigm of flow triggers definitely leads to improved performance.  It is further informative to consider flow state itself as well as the strategies by which to optimize it from a polyvagal perspective.  Given that polyvagal theory provides the fundamental understanding of the function of our nervous system in the presence of continuous internal and external cues of both safety and threat, it is reasonable to infer that the application of polyvagal theory to the understanding of flow can be used to further optimize access to flow state.

As has been described in past articles, the physiological states defined by polyvagal theory can be placed on a performance hierarchy, as described by Michael Allison, with the ventral vagal state at the top, sympathetic state in the middle, and dorsal vagal state on the bottom.  Michael Allison further illustrates that the optimal state for human performance is a blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state.  This state combines the benefits of ventral vagal stabilization with an element of mobilization from the sympathetic state.  The key to this optimal performance state is that the extent of mobilization is controlled, primarily through release of the vagal brake rather than fully descending into a sympathetic state.

Applying the paradigm described by Kotler in the pursuit of accessing flow, internal and external triggers are implemented leading to release of neurotransmitters which then optimize for the presence of flow.  From a polyvagal informed perspective, a deeper understanding of the sequence may be possible.  Given that the neurotransmitters are released by neurons, what provides the optimal circumstance for their release?  In addition, as access to flow can be elusive at times, when we are not able to access flow through the implementation of the triggers, what additional strategies can be employed to provide access back to flow?

Each of these two missing links can be understood from a polyvagal informed perspective.  In addition, application of the principles of polyvagal theory can provide an actionable framework to further optimize access to flow state beyond the paradigm described above.

The first consideration is the process through which neurotransmitters are released.  As described by Kotler, the presence of specific neurotransmitters either in isolation or combination is needed to optimize for accessing flow.  Neurotransmitters are released by neurons and, therefore, neural function is what leads to their release.  The process through which flow triggers lead to release of these chemicals is through activation of specific neural pathways or networks.  The specific type, amount, and combination of neurotransmitters present is dependent upon the particular networks which are activated.  These networks are activated in response to internal and external cues and from a polyvagal perspective, the optimal combination of neurotransmitters for optimal performance is present in the setting of the blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state.  As an example, consider the neurotransmitter neuroepinephrine, also referred to as noradrenaline.  This particular neurotransmitter is released in response to mobilization.  While some of it is good for accessing flow, too much is not.  It is reasonable to infer that when our physiology is too deep within a sympathetic state, there will be too much norepinephrine as a result of full activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  In contrast, if the vagal brake were to be released without loss of ventral vagal activation, then it is likely the case that the amount of available norepinephrine would be more conducive to accessing flow state and optimizing performance.

The second missing link from the paradigm for accessing flow is what strategies to employ when implementation of the flow triggers does not result in access to flow.  From a polyvagal informed lens, flow state is the optimal zone within the blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state.  This understanding informs an approach to addressing the situation in which flow triggers are not resulting in access to flow or the broader blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state.  The typical scenario in which this occurs is when we are too mobilized into a sympathetic state or have further descended the hierarchy into a dorsal vagal state.  As informed by polyvagal theory, the approach to each of these situations is somewhat different, thereby highlighting the importance of first identifying which physiological state we are currently experiencing.  If we are too mobilized within a sympathetic state, then we need to increase our ventral vagal activation through any of the skills and strategies previously described in past articles.  By increasing ventral vagal activation, we would climb the hierarchy towards the blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state and be closer to accessing flow.  In contrast, if we are in a dorsal vagal shutdown state, we must first increase our mobilization in order to ascend the hierarchy into a sympathetic state, even if only temporarily, before we can apply ventral vagal inducing strategies to access the blended performance state.  This understanding provides the basis for why mobilizing is not a good strategy when we are in a sympathetic state but is a necessary step when in a dorsal vagal state.  This recognition emphasizes the importance of first identifying physiological state.

In order to fully pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance it is highly desirable to increase our access to flow.  By combining the paradigm of implementing flow triggers described by Kotler with the polyvagal informed practices and strategies, it is possible to provide the optimal circumstances through which to access flow and also regain the necessary physiological state to access flow when the flow triggers are not sufficient.  The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete are further promoted through a polyvagal informed application of the described flow triggers and associated neurophysiology.

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Kotler, S.  The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.  New York: HarperCollins; 2021.

Kotler, S.  The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.  New York: Hougton Mifflin Harcourt; 2014.

Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.  https://theplayzone.com.

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