Doctors Sarina Grosswald and Steven Rector answer, below, your questions on stress and the benefits of Transcendental Meditation.
Dr. Grosswald: Well, there is no "stressometer," or standard measure of stress. What someone considers stressful is stressful for that person, whether it is stressful for someone else or not, and your susceptibility to stress depends a lot on your physiology. With regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique, your tolerance to stress increases, allowing you to become less susceptible to it, almost like a stress vaccine.
Dr. Grosswald: Research shows that the Transcendental Meditation program is effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. You could think of stress as a continuum—from the lowest level of stress to post-traumatic stress disorder at the high end. The Transcendental Meditation technique has been shown to be effective across the spectrum
Dr. Grosswald: It's interesting that you should ask, because research shows that Americans are the most sleep deprived people in the world. The stress of not sleeping accumulates over time.
And even if you are getting normal sleep once in a while, sleep does not dissolve the accumulated stress of day-in-and-day-out pressures of daily life; it can only dissolve the fatigue of today. So fatigue and stress keep building. Even when you go on vacation, the relaxation doesn't last very long once you get back to your usual lifestyle. That's why everyone needs a way to dissolve the accumulated fatigue and stress of daily living, which is made worse by sleep deprivation.
Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique on a regular basis allows you to throw off that accumulated stress. Research indicates that the regular practice of Transcendental Meditation improves health, including psychological well-being. Researchers estimate that 70 to 90% of disease is stress related, so if you have a mechanism for reducing stress, it improves your overall health and all aspects of your life.
Dr. Grosswald: Sometimes a deadline can increase motivation to get things done, but it really is a total misconception that people perform better under stress. In fact, the people who perform better in pressured situations are the very people who do not find those situations stressful. In other words, the pressure is merely stimulating to those people; if it were stressful to them, their performance would be affected.
If you think about it, when are you most likely to make mistakes? When you're tired, when you're stressed, and when you're doing things too quickly. Creativity comes from being clear-minded, calm and rested.
There's nothing wrong with occasional stress, but chronic stress is debilitating; and when you're really stressed, it is unlikely that creativity and performance are going to be at their peak. The reason is that nature has provided us with a survival mechanism that shuts down the prefrontal cortex—the reasoning and analytical part of the brain—when under extreme stress. And what "shutting down the brain" means is that all the energy goes to the muscles; that is called the "fight-or-flight" response. That works fine if you're being chased by a bear, but for day-to-day life, operating within that circumstance is really counterproductive. Basically, in some circumstances one rises to the occasion when there's pressure. But you don't want to live your daily life like that.
Rather, you want the pre-frontal cortex, the total brain operating. Then you can plan, organize, strategize, and be as productive, effective and creative as possible. What the TM technique does is increase the communication between the pre-frontal cortex and the other parts of the brain. The Transcendental Meditation technique expands brain functioning. Stress does the exact opposite.
Dr. Grosswald: The vacation helps make stress go away for a short period of time, but it really doesn't get rid of the accumulated stress; it's just a temporary fix. What we need is something that allows us to be less susceptible to stress on a daily basis, so that stress doesn't interfere with enjoyment of life. Research shows that the Transcendental Meditation program not only allows the mind and body to release accumulated stress, over time it helps one to become more resistant to stress.
Dr. Rector:It is understood, for instance, that hormones modulate the immune system. The immune system is your defense not only against infectious diseases, but also against cancer. Malfunctioning of the immune system may also contribute to heart disease, through mechanisms such as chronic low-level inflammatory hyperactivity, which may contribute to coronary artery plaque formation. You could think of this as corrosion in the arteries from excessive heat, so to speak.
When the immune system is constantly under demand and threat, and stress prevails, it gradually becomes deranged and confused, as if estranged from the systems it is intended to protect. Like a good cop gone bad, it loses the ability to be perfectly vigilant in protecting the body from real threats and gradually it can become aggressive against its own body—at first to a lesser degree, but eventually it is possible for this to happen to a flagrant degree. Autoimmune disease can occur as a result.
Dr. Rector:Yes, when the body is less stressed as a result of the practice of Transcendental Meditation, hormone levels also change in the direction of less stress. As a powerful antidote to stress, the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique results in restoration of harmony, integration and balance. These healing mechanisms function at every level of the complex human physiology. Without having to think about it, the entire organism becomes holistically reintegrated and balanced.
This happens at the silent source of the physiology. Therefore, the TM technique can result in healing and reintegration of the entire physiology in a way not otherwise available or expected through any other stress management technique. This is an extraordinary claim, yet it is well justified on the basis of the overwhelming support of over forty years of scientific research from around the world.
Our medical experts
Sarina Grosswald, Ed.D. is an expert in cognitive learning who recently directed the first-of-its-kind research study on the effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on children with language-based learning disabilities. Dr. Grosswald and her work have been extensively featured in the national media, including PBS and ABC News.
Steven Rector, M.D. has practiced emergency medicine for the past 18 years. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Emergency Medicine.