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RESEARCH: Meditating will save you from harmful levels of stress
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8 June 2015
Why is too much stress so damaging to our health? And how can the technique of Transcendental Meditation be useful in reducing and managing your stress levels?
Not all stress is bad
For the most part in our human history, our strategic choices in stressful situations have been rather narrow. When, as a hunter, you happen to stand eye-to-eye with a tiger, either you dig your heels in and ready yourself for combat or you run for your sweet life.
That is the reason why we, as a species, have developed a ''fight-or-flight'' response to stress which prepares the body for either of these two options.
The physiological mechanism behind this response is actually quite fascinating. When we are under stress, a particular hormone (epinephrine) floods our bloodstream and
∙ slows down the digestive system (no wasting energy on that now!);
∙ increases the heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels (since we need loads of fuel delivered to the muscles quickly!); and
∙ switches off the prefrontal cortex of the brain and puts faster-acting, more primitive parts of the brain in charge. (Who needs planning and problem solving, impulse control, emotional regulation, decision making and reasoning in times of peril?! We're fighting for our lives here, not solving equations!)
This all sounds good for successfully surviving in the wild.
When the survival mode becomes the norm
Unfortunately, however, our bodies cannot tell the difference between meeting a beast in the jungle and encountering an angry boss, getting stuck in traffic or finding 23,746 unread messages in the Inbox first thing Monday morning.
We still get the rush of the stress hormone, which prepares our body either to fight or to take off. When this happens too often, our vital organs are under constant pressure (think, for example, of all the extra work your poor heart has to do!) and stress becomes a real health hazard.
Study after study has shown that frequent experience of stress causes problems, namely,
—e.g., depression; anxiety; panic attacks; problems with learning, memory and emotional regulation; insomnia; oversensitivity to new stressors; irritability; destruction of neurons; etc.; and
—e.g., weakened immune system, high or low blood pressure, heart disease, higher stroke risk, migraines, aggravated cancer, premature aging, digestive problems, high cholesterol level, unhealthy food choices, increased alcohol consumption, etc.
So the vital question in our hectic modern lives is not whether to manage stress, but how to do it most efficiently.
Managing it: How can you reduce excessive levels of stress?
Scientific research shows that Transcendental Meditation changes our response to stress. Transcendental Meditation is a simple, natural and effortless mental technique.
TM practice provides deep relaxation and rest for the body and mind and
∙ balances nervous system activation,
∙ balances hormonal levels and
∙ increases brain coherence.
As a result, our body and mind no longer overreact to stressful situations. We no longer see a traffic jam as an immediate danger to our life.
Transcendental Meditation practice also reduces levels of depression, anxiety and over-sensitivity and allows us to cope better with our everyday life.
Stress reduction in college students
The power of Transcendental Meditation as a stress-buster in real-life situations has been studied in various settings.
For example, research shows that college students who practice Transcendental Meditation have
∙ less stress;
∙ less anxiety;
∙ less depression;
∙ less harmful fight or flight response to stressors;
∙ faster adjustment to and recovery from stressful stimuli; and
∙ lower blood pressure
In order to graduate not just with a diploma but also with great mental and physical health, it seems a good idea to make the Transcendental Meditation course part of your personal curriculum!
Managing work-related stress and anxiety in adults
In a similar vein, TM practice has been proven beneficial in dealing with all the various challenges of life after school.
Studies conducted with adults show that Transcendental Meditation practice
∙ relieves work-related stress;
∙ reduces general mental distress;
∙ improves mental health;
∙ reduces blood pressure more effectively than other means of reducing stress; and
∙ induces changes in the brain (clarified gamma amplitude) associated with feelings of happiness, love and calmness.
The benefits of Transcendental Meditation for increasing work efficiency have also been documented. So TM can make your work life not only less stressful but more successful!
Reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress
Extreme forms of stress can cause extreme levels of harm to the mind and body, triggering a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People who suffer from PTSD include war veterans; victims of violent crime, rape or abuse; survivors of war, accidents or natural disasters; or some other radically stressful situation.
As a result of such events, the brain may switch to a hyper-vigilant mode—a prolonged fight-or-flight response—in which one expects a threat to life always and everywhere. The resulting stress, deep and relentless, is horrendous for the mind and brutally damaging for the body.
Individuals with PTSD suffer from poor sleep, develop memory and decision making problems, distrust others and often fall into the trap of substance abuse in their attempts to self-medicate. While traditional therapies have often failed to help such individuals, Transcendental Meditation has turned out to be a promising cure.
A pilot study conducted with Iraq War veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD showed that Transcendental Meditation practice relieved the symptoms of PTSD as measured by different scales for the disorder.
An earlier key study (published in 1985) with veterans of the Vietnam War similarly demonstrated that Transcendental Meditation
∙ lessened the symptoms of PTSD, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and stress reactivity; and
∙ improved the practitioners' quality of life.
The control group who received psychotherapy did not improve significantly on these variables.
It seems therefore safe to say that TM practice can balance out even the most extreme form of the stress response.
Bring down your level of stress
Whatever is the source of excessive stress in your life, it is simply not good for your health.
You cannot always change your outer circumstances and control everything that happens to you. However, you can significantly increase your inner resilience to stress and counteract its negative impact by regularly practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique.
When facing stress, do not fight it, and do not flee from it—denying its existence or hoping that it will somehow vanish of its own accord.
Instead, teach your mind and body to calm down in a natural, easy and effortless way.
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