Finding Flow Just May be the Antidote to Quarantine Brain

I figured out what my brain is like right now. It is like a rock on the banks of a fast-running stream. Leaves, twigs, branches, logs, even fish and birds pass by, but I have no way of catching them. So, I don’t go anywhere, but still I race after them. It is exhausting to go nowhere, but still be scurrying.

When you are learning mindfulness, there is an exercise where you imagine yourself sitting by a peaceful stream. As thoughts come up, you imagine them as leaves floating by. The idea is that no matter what type of thought comes by, you let it go.

You don’t try and rush bad thoughts past quickly, or hold on to happy thoughts. Instead all thoughts are treated the same. The idea is that you distance yourself from the constant flow of thoughts.

Instead of distancing myself, while in isolation since the pandemic began, I’m finding that I want to grab on to every thought that passes by. And with all the news, advice, and constant buzz, there is a lot to hold on to.

The Science Behind Quarantine Brain

While looking at a stream seems relaxing, it can also become monotonous. At first, it’s really nice to just watch the water. You think, I’ve never had time just to sit and watch the water. But watching a stream 24–7 can get really boring. After a while, you are pretty sure you’ve seen that exact same leaf, branch, and twig, in the same order before.

If you’ve been staying inside for a month or so and limiting contact with others outside your immediate bubble, that might sound familiar. You are probably starting to wonder just how long you’ve been staring at that darn stream.

And there’s a real reason for it. Your brain perceives time not by the hours spent, but by how it feels. Without variety and nothing to look forward to, one day is exactly like the next and the next and the next.

Finding Flow Not Distraction

While most of us aren’t so lucky to be isolating near a beautiful stream, our brain is likely still working to find ways to distract itself during this time. Ruminating on the news and stopping to focus on every fact that comes our way is one way our brain likes to keep itself busy, and part of the reason my mind and (maybe yours too?) has been so scattered over the past weeks of safer at home.

But finding things to do where the mind actually forgets all that stuff is even better. The way to do that is to find something that puts you in a state of flow.

If you’ve ever found yourself doing something where you were completely immersed and in the moment, you’ve experienced a sense of flow. Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow is different for different people. Here are some ways people experience this wonderful state of mind:

  • Playing music
  • Engaging in sports
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Creating something
  • Cooking or baking
  • Meditation

I experience flow when I am writing. I also was aching to do something creative last week. I am not artistic in the sense of being able to draw realistically, but I like to play with art, so I decided to collage. I created the collage below and found myself completely involved in the process. Since I had been spending so much time on my computer, it was refreshing to do something with my hands.

It is different than when I am doing something like watching television, which is a good respite for the brain, but depending on what I am watching does not engage it in the same way. According to Csíkszentmihályi that is more related to a sense of apathy, where challenge and skill level are both low.

Read more about flow and see a TED talk with Csíkszentmihályi.

Originally published at on April 24, 2020.

Narrative nonfiction and memoir. Querying my memoir about my family, told through the lens of brain tumor and father’s stroke.

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