Last week I wrote about FLOW – our optimal performance state and a source of success and happiness.

The key requirement for achieving Flow is the perception that we are facing a CHALLENGE.

A challenge

“The challenged state is the state where individuals perceive a situation as demanding but believe they have enough resources to cope with the situation.”

 ~ Kassam, Koslov, and Mendes (2009)

To qualify as a ‘challenge’ we have to perceive that the difficulty of the demand we’re facing is moderate to high, the level of skills and resources needed to meet the demand is moderate to high and we have the required skills and resources. This puts into the zone where achieving Flow is possible (see the graph below). In this zone we feel a level of control and predictability, and anticipate a positive outcome. The situation is experienced as pleasant, exciting, and interesting and as an opportunity to prove ourselves or achieve personal growth.

Challenge Level versus Skill Level

This graph shows that:

  • we enter the flow zone when the challenge of an activity is moderate to high and we perceive it is met by our relevant skill set.
  • too high a challenge with insufficient skills results in worry and anxiety leading to distress.
  • too low a skill level combined with insufficient challenge results in apathy and boredom leading to distress. The human brain responds poorly to boredom. If our brain is under-challenged then it loses its ability to focus and allows our critical voice to kick into action.


On the graph the:

  • Challenged State covers the Flow zone and part of the Arousal and Control zones. For most people these are the zones where we spend most of our lives, because every day we are faced with problems to resolve; tasks that stretch us; time constraints that push us and situations that put us under pressure.
  • Distressed State encompasses boredom, apathy, worry, and anxiety.
  • Relaxation State. in this zone a high skill level combined with few challenges, means we can enjoy chilling out!

Challenge Stress Response

Contrary to what a lot of people think we have more than one stress response. When faced with a threat we trigger the infamous Fight or Flight Response but, when faced with a challenge we trigger the Challenge Stress Response.

A Challenge Stress Response differs from a ‘Fight or Flight’ Response in a number of important ways.

Both a Fight or Flight Response and a Challenge Response prepare our mind and body for action, something we can feel when our heart starts pounding faster. But during a Fight or Flight Response, the body is anticipating physical harm. To minimize the blood loss that might follow a nasty fight, your blood vessels constrict. The body also ramps up inflammation and mobilizes immune cells to prepare you to heal quickly. The release of adrenaline diminishes, and hence vessels are not dilated. Blood pressure rises. Access to our thinking brain – the prefrontal cortex is restricted and we just think and act to survive. We experience distress. This is not useful in pressure moments where we need to access to our thinking brain to get the job done successfully.

In contrast, during a Challenge Response, our body responds more like how it does during physical exercise. Because we aren't anticipating physical harm, the body feels safe maximizing blood flow to give us the most possible energy. Unlike in a Fight or Flight response, our blood vessels stay relaxed. Our heart also has a stronger beat-not just faster, but with greater force. Each time our heart contracts, it pumps out more blood. Adrenaline dilates vessels, and hence our blood pressure remains relatively constant.

The Challenge Response releases a particular mix of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, dopamine and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Dopamine is the pleasure chemical released whenever we face a challenge. We experience the release of this hormone as excitement, engagement, and curiosity. But dopamine does more than just stimulate our emotions and increase our motivation - it also tightens focus, drives us into the now, and, thus, speeds entrance into flow. DHEA, the rejuvenating cousin of cortisol, produces a boost that provides the drive and energy to help us get through challenging situations. This cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters provides the positive emotional arousal we need to optimise our performance. We feel excited but not fearful.

As a result our motivation is to approach the situation, rather than avoid it. Our thinking brain remains ‘on-line’ and available to us improving our focus and level of concentration. We can problem solve.

So imagine this - you're waiting in the wings before a presentation, flipping through your PowerPoint slides in your mind's eye. You know you can do this! Adrenaline shoots into your system; norepinephrine follows, but in lesser amounts. Your heart rate increases, your hands get warm, your eyes light up. Cortisol inches up. Dopamine is released. This is a challenge stress response. You're ready to fly and take the world by storm! The overall result is increased confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance.


When we trigger the:

  • ‘Fight or Flight’ Response we experience DISTRESS. Distress harms our ability to perform at our best.
  • Challenge Stress Response we experience EUSTRESS. Eustress, is a term coined by stress researcher Hans Selye and literally translates to ‘good stress’. Eustress enhances our ability to perform at our best. It provides the motivation, energy and focus we need to meet the challenge we are facing.



What next?

If you'd like to explore how you can meet life's challenges, achieve more frequent flow states, enhanced performance and happiness contact me on 021 056 8389 or email me at or use the Book Now button below.

Wishing you success with the challenges you face this week.
Go well

REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."


Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.