07/15/2012 10:04 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2012

The Fearless Magic Of 'Hyper Flow'

Close to all of us, a magical world exists where we can experience enhanced powers, yet few of us visit there.

It is a dimension where cops see gun battles in slow motion, where the basket becomes as big as a dumpster to NBA superstar LeBron, and where a reporter on deadline has an almost out-of-body experience, watching himself complete his task with time to spare.

Some people call it being "in the zone," but I think it's more complex than that, more accessible than those fleeting performances that athletes, entertainers or on-deadline workers report just a few times in a career.

After decades of research and interviews with hundreds of scientists, psychologists, high achievers and ordinary people who have experienced this phenomenon, I call it "hyper flow." It is a mental and physical state in which we tap into our fight-or-flight system to harness its powerful hormones, such as adrenaline and testosterone, for increased focus, strength and production.

The result of this fear energy is easiest to see in physical efforts such as James' 45 points against the Boston Celtics in a playoff game this past season, and grandmother Lorraine Lengkeek fighting off -- with a pair of binoculars -- a grizzly bear mauling her husband in Montana's Glacier Park.

But it can also enhance finely tuned motor skills, such as in the case of bowler Troy Ockerman, who bowled an incredible three straight perfect games.

Hyper flow seems related to tachypsychia, a high-end oddity of fight-or-flight in which life-threatening situations seem to happen in slow motion.

I believe tachypsychia is nature's way of allowing us to see the action one frame at a time to allow us more of a chance to survive it. Many of you might have experienced this during automobile accidents.

Hyper flow does not have the powerful yet fleeting big bang of fight-or-flight; rather, it is a longer-term type of trance with lower, more optimal levels of arousal.

I think everybody is capable of evoking hyper flow in their area of expertise, as long as they have the proper training, experience and emotional management. During the moment of truth in a pressure situation, fight-or-flight kicks in automatically, but we often overreact and allow our mind/body to be flooded with too much adrenaline; we start to choke and our limbs and technique seize up.

Through the years, I have developed a formula I call the "Alliance of Emotions," which transforms fear into action and too much adrenaline into more a more proactive mix of dopamine and testosterone. It's hard to prove this formula in the lab, but an expert who believes it's plausible is Dr. Redford Williams, a neuroscientist at Duke University.

Generally, women's testosterone levels are lower than men's, yet women can summon this potent drug when they are in competition at work or defending their ego.

In the first stage of the formula, in high-pressure situations you must recognize that you are aroused. Quickly allow two or three seconds of time-out, which allows you to idle in neutral, then plug your hormones into your task, focusing on technique and dispassionate response. For this stage, you may need a cue phrase, such as "Let go." For the second stage, use something like, "Focus!" then trust yourself and your skills.

"The trick is to concentrate on the technical aspects of the work, rather than on the danger," said Terence McTigue, retired NYPD bomb squad specialist. "If you're only thinking about getting your tail blown against a wall, you're not going to do the job correctly."

Many people have trouble with directly channeling their fear energy into their work, and may need a link between feeling the fear and the dispassionate focus. This link can be an emotion other than fear -- particularly anger, which gets you out of the freeze mode and moving forward.

When I feel myself choking in sports or deadline pressure, I get mad at myself and say something like, "Clarkson, don't let people down!"

So the formula becomes "fear to anger to dispassionate response." You cannot let anger stay in your system for more than a couple of seconds or you will blow up. The "link emotion" could also be joy or excitement.

It takes time and practice to develop this formula, but I've used it to bring on hyper flow perhaps 30 times in amateur sports and deadline writing.

In 37 years of daily newspaper reporting, I cannot remember ever missing a deadline, and I seemed to expand my ability to deal with time constraints by reaching an optimal level of arousal and focusing on the task, not the potential results.

Most of the time, I am mild-mannered, but I would get geared up prior to the 11 a.m. daily deadline. Following deadline, I allowed a recovery period of at least an hour, often involving playing basketball at a nearby gym to burn off the excess fear energy.

For women, hyper flow can be a great equalizer in physical situations or for increased concentration during important meetings and crucial relationship showdowns.

In 1993 in Corunna, Mich., bowler Ockerman had what I would term a hyper flow experience, or a perfect emotional storm, to throw a perfect 900 series. Based on an a personal interview I had with him after the feat, I believe these were some of the factors:

  • On the way to the bowling alley, he raised his arousal levels by listening to heavy metal music.

  • He employed his fight-or-flight system by convincing himself he had to defend his pride against a bowler who usually beat him.
  • He programmed his mind/body by visualizing his throwing style and the nervousness he might feel under pressure.
  • He focused intensely on each shot, but relaxed between shots.
  • During games, he drank many caffeine-laced Diet Cokes. Caffeine from such drinks can stretch a person's adrenaline system to increase focus.
  • He trusted himself in the dispassionate stage.
  • When asked how he accomplished the unheard-of feat, Ockerman said he wasn't sure. That's why we need a strategy to make these things happen more often.

    Michael Clarkson is an award-winning writer and professional speaker, considered an authority on fear. He has authored seven books, including Intelligent Fear.

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