Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Importance of Flow for the Health of Women's Hearts

Research presented earlier this week at the American Heart Association's 2010 Scientific Sessions indicated that women who report having high job strain have a 40 percent increased risk of heart disease (This includes heart attacks, arterial blockages, and the need for procedures to open blocked arteries.), compared to those with low job strain. On initially reading the headlines, part of me thought, well, of course, this is a no brainer, isn't it? After all, that thing called "work" is where we spend at least 40 hours of every week. So a stressful job is naturally going to take its toll on the heart. What really grabbed my attention though, in addition to the HIGH percentage of those with increased risk of heart disease, is the way job strain was defined:

"Job strain, a form of psychological stress, is defined as having a demanding job, but little to no decision-making authority or opportunities to use one’s creative or individual skills."

The italics are mine, and the italicized text is worth repeating. Little to no decision-making authority or opportunities to use one's creative or individual skills.

So it's not having a job that is demanding, but it's alienation from oneself and ones job that puts the strain on the heart. Reading this, I started thinking of so many different things--about women, being a woman, seeing smart women around me who aren't valued for what they have to offer, and even the ways women often don't value themselves and perhaps even settle into situations and jobs that really don't do it for them without recognizing that settling is what they're doing. Just the day before, in a conversation with a friend (yes, a woman), our discussion turned to the way one can sometimes find oneself inhabiting the space of comfortably numb (some Pink Floyd settling) compared with the psychological concept of "flow" as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow, a positive psychology concept, is basically a mental state of being in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of complete, energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Importantly, flow is a delicate balance, an in-between space where the challenge is neither too much or too little. Too much challenge can disrupt flow (when one is involved in an activity that is completely overwhelming, such as being tasked with writing an article about the evolution of bird wings without a background in ornithology). Similarly, a lack of challenge also makes achieving this state of flow unlikely (say being tasked with proofreading articles about the evolution of bird wings when one has written five books on ornithology). In both instances, getting lost in the moment, becoming one with the activity, falling into it to the point that the boundary between you and the task begins to collapse, isn't likely. Not that being challenged too much or too little are bad things in and of themselves, but when these non-flow states are the norm and not the exception, it's another story altogether.

This idea isn't new to me, generally. I can think of times in my life when spending most of my days unchallenged began to spill over and leak into all other areas of my life, but the idea that this could be bad for my heart, adds another dimension to the topic.

Getting back to the conversation with my friend and my thoughts about smart women in unchallenging, not-nearly-enough jobs, with all economic considerations aside (yes, these days, it's simply good to have a job and a regular paycheck), I worry about that invisible line that one crosses when not-enough is pushed aside and replaced by that sense of numbness, of being comfortably numb, of no longer even knowing what one wants. It is the spillover effect of not having flow. Say I am bored, but comfortable for 40 hours of week; the job is familiar, I know what to do, everything about the work environment is "safe," if I stay in this situation long enough do I eventually risk losing a sense of who I am? Even in my off hours? I think of times in my life when I am challenged and invigorated and my days are filled with hour after hour of "the flow zone" and what I notice is that my life itself becomes more expansive, more energized, more alive. In every way. I work hard, but I am not drained. I work hard, but I am motivated. To do more, to reach more, to open more, to keep going. It is the opposite of dwindling. If I haven't quite made my point, think of those long weekends or even weeks where you decide not to do too much except watch a marathon of some fabulous TV series. You spend three or four days watching three seasons worth of Dexter, for instance. Hell, it's a good time. You really do enjoy it, but how do you feel at the end of it? Bleary, a bit sluggish, perhaps even brain dead? Compare with a day spent with friends in good conversation. The words bounce and gleam and sentences burst to overflowing. The world shimmers in that way it does when you see parts of it in a new light. You eventually part ways with your friends only because you have too--because the bar or coffee shop is closing or you realize day has turned into night, but you go home and you still have more to say. You fall asleep still thinking of the conversation. You wake the next morning and you are compelled to write about it, even.  A follow up email, a blog, a journal entry ...

That's the difference between non-flow and flow.

So flow is good for a woman's heart. I think about the women I know. The women I have known who sell themselves short. Ultimately, it could be bad for their heart, especially if they accept job conditions that aren't enough.

One of the unexpected directions the reported outcomes of this heart study led me is back to my early graduate school self. There I was, in my second year of my PhD program. One day I asked a friend if I took up too much space in our seminar. Not physically, but I was worried about being a giant class conversation hog. Did I talk so much that others didn't get the chance to speak? Was I rude? Did I blurt out my ideas and run roughshod over others? No, my friend said. In fact, he pointed out to me that I was quite the opposite, that every time I had something to say, I would apologize before saying it.

Imagine. I was worried about taking up too much space when in reality I was in the habit of dismissing my ideas before uttering them. "This is probably a dumb idea, but ..." You know the game.

This was an eye-opener. At first I didn't believe him. So I started listening to myself. And sure enough, there I was; apologizing for my ideas. Then I started listening to all the other students. What I noticed was that almost without fail the other women in the room were doing the same thing. SMART, INSIGHTFUL women, all working on their PhDs in philosophy were apologizing for their thoughts. The men in the room weren't apologizing at all.

I eventually cured myself of this self-deprecating behavior by allowing myself to say "This is a dumb idea, but ..." but ONLY in my head. So this habit started making itself noticeable to me. Every time I caught myself about to say it, I would say it silently, then share my thought. This had the two-fold effect of making me see how often I was demeaning myself and the effect of making me speak out more confidently (no one could see what was going on inside). Eventually, I realized that I wasn't saying anything dumb at all and that my ideas were just as important and valid and even as interesting as my cohorts'. But I never stopped noticing other women caught in this cycle of self-flagellation.

I thought of this when I read about this 40 percent increase in heart disease risk caused by job strain, because I worry that women may sell themselves short, saying yes to staying in jobs that don't allow them to flourish.

Again, I am not for a minute trying to dismiss the nuts and bolts of having a job or the difficulty of finding new jobs, if the one you are in isn't enough for you. What I am trying to get at is the importance of not losing sight of yourself, of remembering who you are and everything you have to offer, and strategizing to find ways of offering it, if indeed you are in a job situation that is sucking you dry because you aren't given the space to grow. How to get enough water for your roots is the question.

Because, it turns out that water for your roots is good for your heart. Imagine your heart in flow. Burgeoning, blossoming, reaching out, unfolding, giving to the world. To yourself. To you, the insightful woman you are, to others.  If you can't find it in your 40-hour-a-week life, but you have to stay in that job for now, then look for that flow elsewhere. Start today. Without hesitation. Feed your heart in your non-work hours and watch as you fall into the abundance of flow. Once again, it's a mind body thing. The corporeal/non-corporeal loop, one becoming the other, yet another time again.

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