Afraid and Anxious? A Way to Help Deep-Six Fear
My friend was a very easy-going young woman who didn’t project anything into her relationships, only to find that her boyfriend was not being faithful. Because she hadn’t intuited what was happening, she afterward doubted her own grasp of reality. Then, out of fear of more rejection and the insecurity that had resulted from this first deceit, she developed such anxious, doubtful and guarded behavior that future relationships were complicated, unnatural and uncomfortable.
Being afraid is a terrible feeling. Even experience of its less sharp, more generalized version, anxiety, is uncomfortable and debilitating. And everyone justifiably has these feelings from time to time. But some women find that fear and anxiety are characteristic features of their lives, even when these feelings are not warranted.
Fear is completely natural—it can trigger (or is triggered by) biological, biochemical, neurological and psychological reactions to perceived danger. Fear can be powerful and overwhelmingly debilitating or highly motivating, and it can be subtler—like anxiety—quietly nagging at our peace of mind. It warns us that loss of happiness, safety, or physical wellbeing is impending.
Although physical danger continues to be a real possibility in civilized societies where there is the potential of physical harm from criminal acts and accidents, it is far less so than the days when our ancestors were the prey of wild animals. Fear elicits the flight or fight response, helping us get away from the tiger or the oncoming automobile.
We can be afraid of so many uncontrollable major factors that would hugely impact our lives (for example, natural disasters), not to speak of a fear of creepy-crawlies (you should hear me shriek), splitting our pant seams, and getting on the wrong subway train. When we are exposed too often to excessive fear-producing stress, the result may be a hyper-vigilant stress-response and harm to psychological and physical health as well as to aging. The problem is that in the modern world many things that may elicit fear, such as a surprise quiz, a stern look from the boss, or the daily news, may create fear that shuts down the executive functions of the brain, which we need to deal with such complex situations. In these circumstances, fleeing or fighting won’t accomplish what we need.
The physiological effect during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique is just the opposite of the fight or flight reflex. Studies show that how we react to stressful events in the environment depends on how stressful we are feeling inside. For example, research shows that people who carry around more stress inside themselves, as measured by spontaneous skin resistance responses, show more extensive startle “fear” responses and recover more slowly from stressful events. TM meditators have been shown to experience less of these internal stress responses and startle responses compared to non-meditating control subjects of the same age and demographics.
The TM program increases our inner balance, settled state of mind and resilience so that we experience that fear and anxiety are triggered more rarely. In this way, TM offers significant relief from unhelpful fear and its consequences. Psychologist and published researcher Dr. David Orme-Johnson explains:
During and after the practice of the TM technique, people often report feeling less stressed, happier, and more comfortable with themselves. This feeling typically lasts for some time after the TM session ends. Over time, this feeing builds up to last more and more in activity, and it is the antithesis of fear. The physiology of TM is the exact opposite of fear—reduced respiration, heart rate, increased skin resistance, etc. This physiology lasts more and more in activity after TM until no more fear is felt at any time. TM is also helpful in reducing fear and anxiety because it cultivates a deeper sense of blissful self and well-being that anchors the person in all the ups and downs of relationships and everything else.
Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the ability of TM to reduce anxiety, intense fear and fear-based responses to the environment are studies on PTSD.
About PTSD and fear in women
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may develop in people who have experienced a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) site states, “It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America website states that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men. A UCSF study of individuals with PTSD symptoms, published in the Oct. 26, 2012 issue of Journal of Psychiatric Research, found that women were more likely than men “to develop a stronger fear response, and—once conditioned to respond fearfully—were more likely to have stronger responses to fear-inducing stimuli.”
PTSD affects at least 10 percent of women in America. The Transcendental Meditation technique is one method in current use to decrease PTSD symptoms for veterans, refugees, disadvantaged women, victims of domestic violence, and the general public. TM is found to be effective at reducing the problem of fear triggered by innocent circumstances or inner conditioning. Published studies show that TM decreases multiple features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including anxiety. Findings published in Military Medicine include a 40-55 percent reduction in symptoms of PTSD, reduced flashbacks and bad memories, and improved quality of life in veterans. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology reported that Transcendental Meditation is twice as effective as other relaxation programs and techniques for decreasing trait anxiety.
Once a woman has learned the Transcendental Meditation technique, she has an effortless way for her mind to become calm, for her heart rate to decrease, and for her body to become deeply rested—allowing deep-rooted stresses that would otherwise trigger unwarranted fear to be dissolved.
Women’s everyday fears
Most often, in more normal circumstances than combat and other situations that cause severe trauma, women’s fears and anxieties are centered on internal issues. Interestingly, women often report similar causes of fear—many of these are in the arena of relationships. Here are some examples that may sound familiar:
1 — More than men, women are afraid of being abandoned in a relationship: “Men are ‘fight-and-flighters.’ If they can’t do something, that’s stressful,” according to stress-expert and Harvard instructor Eva Selhub, senior physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine. “Women are ‘tenders and befrienders.’ If they can’t have as many people in their lives, that’s what’s stressful to them.”
Aging exacerbates anxiety of being deserted. Women tend to express fear of becoming less attractive and interesting, which in turn promotes our fear of losing friends and spouses or partners. With the regular practice of the TM technique, women experience increased collectedness, self-esteem and inner strength. We are more in the moment, self-reliant, and able to enjoy what is going on rather than dwelling in fear that something will come along to destroy it. Our meditation enhances brain function, reduces hormones associated with stress and deeply relaxes us, all having the effect of gently healing and nourishing our inner self—enabling us to give more to others. Giving is the basis of healthy relationships—the most fulfilling personal connections result when we feel so full within ourselves that we can give freely without being concerned about receiving back.
As psychotherapist Judith Pomerantz wrote, “The Transcendental Meditation technique opens our awareness to an inner reservoir of serenity—we become calm, centered and more at ease—even in the midst of a hectic demanding day. TM reduces stress and expands awareness so we become more alert to the needs of others as well as ourselves. It quiets the mind so we can listen better. It reduces anxiety and lets the heart flow so that we can be more generous and nurturing…. To create the most happy harmonious union with her family, friends, and associates, a woman must draw from the infinite source of life—the unified field of infinite silent potential—at the deepest level of her mind.”
2 — Women tend to worry about being liked, appreciated, loved, and respected: Women often measure self-worth by appearance, approval from others, our job and salary status, the company we keep and even the tone of voice with which someone speaks to us.
Throughout our lives, these external circumstances change—we don’t want to be vulnerable to their effects on our inner stability. It’s due to stress, fatigue, and lack of inner happiness that anxiety can crop up and undermine our confidence and self-assuredness. Research shows that the TM practice develops a more strongly defined self-concept, with meditators perceiving their “actual self” as significantly closer to their “ideal self.” Enhancing our experience of who we are through the direct experience of our inner being during TM is a subtle, effective way to strengthen our sense of self and to improve how others perceive us.
3 — We are deeply afraid of not doing justice to our role as mothers, even more so if we also work outside the home. So close to our hearts, and ever in our minds, our children are the greatest treasures in our lives. Because we are their nourisher, caregiver, educator, safety monitors—and the main repository of their trust and wellbeing—we are ever attentive to their needs and fulfillment. In turn, they give us endless delight and innocent love.
Because of our status as mother, our concerns about the quality of our care, our decisions, the guidance we give, even the expression on our face and in our voice, is paramount. How do moms know the absolutely right thing to say or do at any given time? Moms can be anxious that they’re not doing enough, not doing it best, or not able to do it at all. Failing your child is one of a woman’s biggest fears.
To fulfill our parenting responsibilities gracefully and well, we need to be alert, intuitive, patient, wise and loving—abilities that depend on how rested and relaxed we are. Our ability to listen, understand, and communicate in an uplifting way is dependent on how settled our mind is and how joyful we feel ourselves. The process of transcending to more silent levels of thought during the TM practice, along with the corresponding reduction of fatigue and stress achieved as our metabolism slows, creates vibrant consciousness and a naturally relaxed, stress-resilient physiology that is a sure foundation for successful motherhood.
Peace of mind
I once met a woman named Charlotte. Born in Germany, she had been living in New York City for most of her adult life. She had learned Transcendental Meditation more than thirty years before our meeting. I asked her what she thought was the most precious benefit she’d received from TM. Without hesitation, she replied simply, “No more fear.”
To me, that was astonishing and the most promising and wonderful answer I could have heard. No more fear. At all. Ever. Peace of mind. The only way to achieve such a thing is to be completely deeply connected to the most invincible level of oneself. And this is what Transcendental Meditation offers.
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About the Author
Janet Hoffman is the executive director of TM for Women Professionals, a division of TM for Women in the USA