08 August 2020

When you sigh, where all that extra air come from? Have you ever realized you’re holding your breath unconsciously only for it to end with a deep exhale? Happened to me a couple weeks ago. I was driving and I noticed that from time to time I would be thinking about the other cars and the more I thought the shallower I breathed. Then, the driving situation would simplify and I would switch to “autopilot” cruising and release a single sigh and feel a little bit more relaxed.

It is not that the situation on the road was stressful, or dangerous. It was normal evening, and traffic was not heavy. It wasn’t stressing me. In fact, I was relaxing after a day of work and packing and excited to go on a short backpacking trip. Yet, the mere act of thinking was enough to make me hold my breath a bit.

And this isn’t the first time I noticed that pattern. During meditation, I’ve noticed a slight buildup of held up breath when my mind is wandering, and then I’ve noticed myself releasing that breath when I remember I am actually meditating and focus on the object of my meditation. By releasing the held up breath I was releasing the wandering thoughts. Or vice versa. I don’t know which causes which to happen, but the correlation is clear. Thinking correlates with holding breath and relaxing my mind correlates with relaxation of my breathing.

It is natural to hold breath in situations which are stressful, our bodies do that subconsciously through the sympathetic nervous system. That the “fight or flight” response. So for me, if thinking correlates holding breath, and holding breath correlates with the “fight or flight” response, then by the transitive property thinking correlates with the fight or flight mode. This is not the mode we’re supposed to be for a long time, as it wears us out much faster. Intense sympathetic stress happens when chased by a wild animal (favorite pastime), or experiencing a stressful situation at work or in our relationships. The mere act of thinking does not create as intense response, sometimes it results in a mild sympathetic response.

Which brings me to the topic of “parasympathetic thinking” (PST) - which I call the type of thinking which doesn’t result is such breath holding or engaging of the sympathetic system. Parasympathetic thinking is hard to maintain and is fleeting. In moments after a deep exhale or minutes of meditation, our minds still think but without being forced by our conscious mind to go in a certain direction. In such moments, when we’ve relaxed our bodies and our minds, we can experience ideas and emotions which couldn’t get to the front stage before, when we forced our minds to write code, or do taxes, or take care of a baby.

Parasympathetic thinking is allowing the suppressed thoughts to come up forward in our consciousness.

Parasympathetic thinking (PST) is more creative, because during PST we allow our brain to present to us the ideas which it came up with. PST is thinking out of the box. When you’re trying to be creative, try relaxing and exhaling, and see if it helps.

Paradoxically, PST is effortless, as in we can’t force ourselves to be in PST. Sometimes we have a lot of other stress, and a handful of deep exhales won’t help us detach. I once went on a vacation for a week, hiking though beautiful national parks, and during a lot of the hiking my mind was preoccupied with some issues at work. PST is not a switch that we easily flip, but when we do succeed in engaging PST, we do so by canceling our effort. QED the paradox.

I called it a switch to flip, but PST is not clear cut ON/OFF, it is rather a spectrum between, on one hand having focused and directed attention, where we don’t allow anything to bubble up, and on the other hand having a diffused and “bubbly” consciousness.

What I’ve also noticed that some important personal topics of my life are often bubbly. I experience them stronger when I’m further along the PST spectrum. Accessing PST via meditation or other forms of relaxation often helps me connect with these topics and find a happier path in life. I should note thought, that not all bubbly thoughts are important - most are just random. Sometimes I can make my mind more bubbly, but I cannot force the important topics to bubble up.

Parasympathetic thinking is not a scientific concept. There are other, more precise scientific concepts such as “vagus nerve” and “shadow work”, which cover aspects of PST with much more rigor than this blog post. The parasympathetic system can be triggered by slow abdominal breathing, via the vagus nerve, but the state of relaxation is not exactly the bubbly thinking I mean by PST. Yet, PST is definitely a useful enough concept for me to get a better understanding of my thinking, to be more creative and to better balance my stress levels.

I can use it without knowing exactly how it works.

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