By Anne Morgenthal
Stress is present at epidemic levels throughout our society. No one is immune. Whether you are a high level executive responsible for a large corporation, a mom trying to juggle a career and family, or an elementary student preparing for the FCAT, stress is pervasive in your life. We all feel the strain of impending deadlines and struggling to keep a balance in our lives in the midst of constant outside pressures that demand our attention and energy. Research has shown that the lifestyle of the average American is toxic on multiple levels mainly due to poor choices in diet, exercise, and coping skills because of time constraints and lack of knowledge of the long term damage caused by refusing to slow down and really listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us. We are so plugged in and addicted to a constant stream of media stimulation and a never ending ‘to do’ list that we either refuse to or have forgotten how to unwind. This toxic lifestyle is the main cause of stress in our lives and this stress is at the root of most diseases and dysfunctions in our communities, cities and nation.
One of the best ways to manage stress is by learning how to unplug through adopting a meditation practice. I have been a Transcendental Meditation practitioner since 1975, but have also studied various other meditation techniques and discovered that they are all beneficial in providing the body with a deep sense of relaxation to alleviate stress induced responses that are so harmful to our physical, emotional and mental selves. Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Herbert Benson conducted a study that compared the efficacy of various meditative techniques including Transcendental, visualization, repetitive prayer, guided, Vipassana, focusing on the breath, Kripalu or Kundalini yoga, among others and discovered that they all were all successful at influencing the sympathetic nervous system to reduce cortisol and adrenaline. This response benefits metabolism, decreases blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, depression, cholesterol levels, and atherosclerosis plus activating disease-fighting genes. The National Institute of Health in Washington DC was so intrigued with the benefits of Transcendental Meditation in the area of cardiovascular health that they funded a 20 year, $26 million dollar study that targeted heart disease patients. The study concluded that when this population practiced TM it lowered the incidence of stroke, heart attack and death by almost 50 percent.
The ability to change our genetic structure is some of the most exciting news to date on the benefits of meditation. Dr. Benson’s studies discovered that all techniques generated the same gene expression meaning that our bodies are naturally tuned to benefit from a common relaxation response state. His research into epigenetics (how genes are switched on and off) showed about 1,000 stress related genes were turned off in the meditating group and even after practicing for a short time, they were able to change about 433 stress genes.
When I started meditating in 1975, it was neither hip nor trendy, in fact, I was the only one that I knew doing it. In today’s world, it has gone so mainstream that a study conducted by the U.S. government determined that there are over 20 million meditators in America whose participants are as varied as Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Paul McCartney (UK), Jerry Seinfeld, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, Hugh Jackman, Mick Jagger (UK), Dr. Oz, Russell Simmons, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gisele Bundchen, Orlando Bloom, George Lucas, Alice Walker, Roberto Baggio, and last, but certainly not least, Albert Einstein. All branches of the military are adopting meditative programs to enhance troop performance and provide ancillary treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Hospitals and schools across the nation have instituted meditation and mindfulness programs to assist patients with recovery and students with improving academic performance and creativity by bringing focus and clarity to one’s thoughts.
If you do decide to unplug through meditation, the trick is to adopt a technique and practice it on a daily basis. We internalize stress daily and need to diffuse it daily to benefit from all of the wonderful healing properties that this ancient system can bring to our 21st century lifestyle.
Two of my favorite books about meditation include:
The Relaxation Revolution by Herbert Benson, M.D. Harvard Medical School Professor
Transcendence by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.
Anne Morgenthal is a retired teacher from Brevard Public Schools. She obtained a B.S in Family and Consumer Sciences from the University of Cincinnati and an M.A. in Career and Technical Education from the University of South Florida. A resident of Avalon Park, Anne is writing her first novel when she is not walking her doodle Sam around the neighborhood.