Flow zone and breathing

Kevin Roet wrote the book Climbing Psychology. This is his take on Flow and breathing

Kevin Roet


“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”  ―Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Andrew Finney on ’Shorty’s Dyno’ (6c+), Above the Rails,Australia.Luca Celano ©


Flow! What is this flow state people talk about.  Have you ever climbed a route where every movement flowed, no stress was involved, and the climbing felt effortless?  You reached the top, but once down, you struggle to remember how you climbed the route; this is what some sports psychologists refer to as the flow zone. A sense of fluidity in movement, the mind totally absorbed in the moment.  Where the subconscious takes over and climbs for you.  All distractions disappear, and all of your attention is focused on your performance, resulting in quicker reactions, faster processing of information, and increased energy efficiency.  I will try and explain just what this means and how you can achieve it.

Normal Zone


Let's first talk about the"normal" zone, this is where our prefrontal cortex is engaged, the thinking part of our brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher cognitive functions, like distinguishing right from wrong, planning our social behaviour, decision making, connecting with our working memory, and self-expression.  


We spend most of our everyday lives, from the moment we get up to the moment we go to sleep, in the "normal zone"; from planning our day, deciding what to cook for dinner, our interactions with other people, the thoughts that move through our brains at any given time, and so much more.  These thoughts can sometimes feel like distractions, especially when we try to focus on one task.  In our busy lives, we sometimes struggle to turn off this internal dialogue.


Flow Zone


The flow state, or being in the zone, isa state where you are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  Attention is solely focused on the task at hand and all sense of self and time seem to disappear; all that matters is the moment itself.  It is an advantageous and therapeutic state of mind to achieve as we feel good about ourselves, achieve incredible personal goals, learn more about ourselves, and create a sense of contentment along with a rush of happiness.


In the 1960s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, was the first to describe the concept of ‘flow’.  In this state of ‘flow’, people are completely absorbed in the activity, using their creative abilities to their utmost; this is where you feel strong, alert, effortless, fearless, confident, and unaware of yourself. That all sounds great, so how do we get there?

Amandine Loury on La Ligne Claire (8c),Saint Léger, FranceDamien Largeron ©

This state of flow can be achieved not only in risky activities like climbing, but also when working on a piece of art or a project at work.  As long as we are not being distracted. One important factor to consider to achieve this state of flow is the relationship between the skills we possess, and the challenge we put ourselves in.  Let’s take a more detailed look at balancing skills vs challenge ratio.



Skills vs Challenge


It is a fine balance between skill vs challenge, and something that can be easily overlooked.  Every time you climb, you will end up somewhere on this diagram, depending on the relationship between your skills and how challenging the climb is.  As you guessed, you want to be on the flow channel, matching your personal skills to the challenge at hand.  

Csíkszentmihályi’s flow diagram

This does not only refer to the physical challenge, but also the mental challenge. As an example, if you have the fear of falling clipping above a bolt on an insecure move, then every time you end up on an insecure hold above a bolt, you will move out of flow, so the challenge is too great, and anxiety will kick in.  But if we do not challenge ourselves enough, the cognitive part of our brain will be engaged, and we will not be inflow.  


From the above diagram, we can derive that we need the right amount of challenge to match our skills to arrive in a state of flow.  We need realistic goals, and these differ from person to person. When one enters a state of “flow”, the body produces 5 of the most powerful natural chemicals.  These are;


·    Norepinephrine (or adrenaline as we know it)

·    Dopamine – is associated as a reward chemical and can produce feelings of euphoria

·    Anandamide – the happy chemical which gets released with physical exercise

·    Endorphins – these reduce pain and increase the feeling of pleasure

·    Serotonin – happy chemicals


Flow is one of the only times when the brain is flooded with all of these chemicals at once.  They are all very potent reward chemicals.  Steven Kotler (a flowr esearcher) compares the above naturally occurring chemicals and, with the exception of one, illicit drugs.


Dopamine – Cocaine

Norepinephrine – Speed

Endorphins – Heroin

Serotonin – Prozac

Anandamide – Marijuana


To give you a comparison and a perspective of their potency, you can see why the state of flow can become very addictive.  Hence, people use the term‘ adrenaline junkie’.  

The brain is 2% of body mass and uses 20%of the energy from the body.  Conscious processing (prefrontal cortex) is very slow and energy-consuming, whereas sub-conscious processing is quick and energy-efficient. During flow, sub-conscious processing takes over, and parts of the brain shut down - all mental noise disappears.

Arne Dietrich, a psychology professor at the American University of Beirut, refers to it as transient hypofrontality. Let’s break it down: transient = temporary, hypo = to deactivate or slow down (opposite of hyper),frontality = pre-frontal cortex.  

 In transient hypofrontality, we are trading conscious processing for subconscious processing. Information is processed very quickly, requires little energy, and cuts out mental noise; this results in quicker reactions and increased productivity.  

Alex OatesMike Chrimes ©

What's not to like about faster processing using less energy? Albert Dijksterhuis, a Dutch socialpsychologist, ran an experiment in 2009, where he asked a group of football experts to predict the outcome of a selection of matches. One group was given 2minutes to analyse the statistics and any variables they think could influence the results to predict the matches' outcomes. The second group was given the same conditions, but they were distracted with a complicated memory task.  


The second group outperformed the first, better predicting the results of the matches. The first group's conscious processing got in the way; they were overthinking. The second group's subconscious predicted the results, whilst the memory task occupied their consciousness.


When in 'flow,' the prefrontal cortex becomes less active, as does the amygdala (fear part of ourbrain), which is at the centre of decoding stressful stimuli; this is all fantastic while it lasts, but what happens if you get scared and lose the feeling of flow?


 Moving in and out of flow


When we are climbing, we may be in a flow state. If we then end up on an insecure move above a quickdraw, we may become conscious of our position and begin to focus on the possibility of falling off.This might sound familiar; we start to over-grip, our breaths become shorter, and our primary focus becomes the possibility of falling off. No other thought is penetrating our conscious mind; the stress is too much as we have entered too far into our risk zone, and we revert to our comfort zone by following the scripts we have set within our brain. We do this by down climbing and shouting"Take" (as an example). When operating between flow and thefight-or-flight response, all it takes is one negative thought to send us in adownward spiral. 


This is where breathing comes into its own.  Yes, I did say "breathing"?




Apart from providing a vital function to stay alive, the way we breathe can positively or negatively affect how we deal with stress. Really?!? Something as simple as breathing.  I will give you the simplified and short explanation below.


Breathing is the motherboard to the autonomic nervous system, which has two main parts; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for increasing arousal in a fearful situation (fight or flight response). The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of the rest response.  

Brett Jordan ©

When we breathe using our diaphragm, also referred to as belly breathing, abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is a deep breathing technique that engages your diaphragm. Though the diaphragm is involved in both types of breathing, it is less engaged when chest breathing.The diaphragm is a muscle at the bottom of the ribcage, used in respiration(breathing). 


The lungs are covered with nerve endings connected to both the sympathetic and parasympathetic (PSNS) nervous systems.Many of the nerve endings in the lower part of the lungs are connected to the PSNS.Hence, long deep and slow breaths are relaxing. Upon a deep breath in, exhaling stimulates an even stronger parasympathetic response.  


So, how is this relevant to flow? When we become fearful in a moment of stress, slow and deep breathing slows down the heart rate and relaxes us, the opposite of fear; this is where breathing is even more so important. Deep slow breathing also results in endorphins being produced in the body (which is a chemical in the body that relieves us from stress and pain).  


Slow and deep breathing results in a relative increase in activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS),which is responsible for rest. When activated, it encourages energy conservation, slows the heart rate, and relaxes your muscles.


Studies have shown that controlled breathing can lower the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) present in the saliva and alter brain chemistry, which helps enhance focus.  


Final word


To find the right level of challenge for you, moving into flow, and trusting yourself, takes a great deal of practice(well-structured practice), as well as self-analysis, knowing your limits, and lots of hard work. We also need to embrace failure. Only through our willingness to fail do we accept ourselves and can grow.  


Most of us underestimate the importance of breathing, and it is something we take for granted. Slow, deep, rhythmic is beneficial to us by having greater energy levels, feeling calmer, and being more energy-efficient. When in a moment of stress, focus on breathing through your nose, deep and slow, with a steady rhythm. You will feel more relaxed and less stressed as long as the stress you are exposed to is manageable and matches your skill level.


If you are interested to read more on the subject of climbing psychology, I wrote a book on the subject.  Please follow the link below: