The two-way connection between thought-content and physiological state

[epistemic status: argument, followed by hypothesizing.]

Exercise for state-shifting

Here’s a useful trick for those of you who don’t know of it yet: you can use very brief exercise to quickly shift your physical/mental/emotional state.

Suppose that you’re agitated or anxious or energized about something, but you don’t have time to engage with it at the moment. You’re about to go into an important meeting, and it be disruptive for you to be experiencing agitation about something unrelated.

One thing that you can do in this scenario is 90 seconds of cardio: do 60 pushups, or do jumping jacks, or sprint. At least in my experience, this disrupts the agitation (clearing my mental pallet, at it were), so that I can go in and put my full attention on the meeting.

I recently experienced this on a larger scale: after touching a very deep trigger / trauma for me, and having a more visceral reaction reaction than I’ve yet experienced. I was still very triggered about it and ruminating on it, an hour after the initial trigger-event.

The advisor I consulted told me to exhaust myself: to do squats to failure, or to do tabata sprints. Not having a squat rack available at the time, I went outside and did some (bad) 20 second sprints. I was much calmed by the time I finished.)


In my sleep post from last month, I ended by outlining a very simple model:

I’m awake because my body is physiologically aroused.

…Which is caused by attention being absorbed by something that’s in some way energizing or exciting.

…Which is probably because a goal directed process in me is trying to get something (by ruminating or planning or whatever).

Or, stated visually:

Physiological activation diagram 1

However, the fact that you can use exercise to shift your state suggests that this causal flow is not so simple.

Short, intense, physical exertion is sort of like manually resetting the physiological activation node, by “washing it out” with all the state characteristics implied by exercise (or something).

But the fact that this works, and (at least sometimes) you don’t immediately go back to ruminating, suggests that the causal connection between mental content and physiological activation can go both directions: your thoughts can change your level of arousal, and your level of arousal can change your thoughts. Which gives us a causal diagram more like this one:


Elaborating on that model

[Epistemic state: The following is a working hypothesis.]

My current working model has it that you have effectively two “immediate states” or working memories”: that of your system 2 (that’s the standard one), and that of your system 1 (the felt senses and bodily auroral).

Each one has a limited capacity. Just as you can’t keep track of more than a few ideas at a time, your body can only have one(?) overall physiological state. Otherwise 90 seconds of cardio would not “wipe the slate”.

Each of these “states” can influence the other: Your physiological state can influence your mental content (this happens deliberately when one does Focusing), and your mental content can influence your physiological activation (remembering a task I forgot can induce panic).

More thoughts

I frequently experience myself becoming more activated when I lie down to go to sleep. I hypothesize that when I let my mind wader as I’m falling asleep, I often hit upon either, a new exciting idea, or some area that I’m anxious or fearful about. This triggers an activation response, and then a positive feedback loop between the two states.

(Notably, distracting myself by, for instance, reading a comic book for a while, allows me to fall asleep. Eating something also helps, and sometimes masturbating. I speculate that distraction is intervening on the mental content, and eating is intervening on my physiological activation, because digestion activates PSNS. Masturbating might be both?)



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