Is it Possible to Become Resilient to Stress?
Yesterday I was shopping at the mall and overheard a conversation between a salesperson and a grandfather pushing a beautiful 18-month-old girl in a stroller while her mother tried on clothes.
“You won’t find many kids like this one,” the proud grandfather was saying as we all watched the healthy infant smile and coo and stretch her feet and clap her hands. She was the picture of contentment and ease even though there were now three strangers (including me) gathered around her. She wasn’t just performing, either. She was looking me straight in the eye with pure love and delight.
“She’s always like this,” said the grandfather. “Even if she’s sick or teething, she’s happy.”
To me, that’s what resilience is—the ability to thrive no matter what the circumstances. Last week I wrote about a new study that showed resilient children tend to do well in life even in adverse conditions.
This got me thinking about how lacking in resilience I was as a child. Back then, you could look at me the wrong way and I’d burst into tears.
Yet as an adult, I have become much more resilient to stress with each passing year. Rather than growing in stress as I’ve aged, I feel like I’m letting more and more of it go. Not a small part of that growth in resilience has come by practicing the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique.
Twice a day, every day, I’ve been letting my mind and body settle down to a deep state of rest, much deep as sleep, and that refreshing state has allowed deep-rooted stress and fatigue to be released.
A meta-analysis of twenty programs of stress reduction shows that the TM technique is the most effective stress-reduction technique available. A number of studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found that the TM technique has a multi-faceted effect in reducing stress: it significantly lowers levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreases trait anxiety, and reduces sensitivity to stress. At the same time, TM practitioners show increased sense of security and Emotional Basic Trust (EBT) and increased serotonin levels (associated with relaxation and reduced stress).
Another three-month prospective study evaluated the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique on stress reduction, health and employee development in a large manufacturing plant of a Fortune 100 corporation and a small distribution sales company. Employees who learned TM were compared to controls similar in worksite, job position, demographic, and pretest characteristics. Regular meditators improved significantly more than controls (with irregular meditators scoring in between) on multiple measures of stress and employee development, including: reduced physiological arousal (measured by skin conductance levels) during and outside TM practice; decreased trait anxiety, job tension, insomnia and fatigue, cigarette and hard liquor use; improved general health (and fewer health complaints); and enhanced employee effectiveness, job satisfaction, and work/personal relationships.
Getting rid of stress allows your mind and body to function normally, to heal itself if you are sick. And there’s this added advantage: the more stress-free you are, the more resilient you are to new stress coming in.
You could think of stress as a line being chiseled in stone. Something traumatic happens to you as a child, say your teacher wrongly accuses you of cheating and you are too shy to defend yourself. That stress is stored in your nervous system, in the chemistry of your body or in its structure. Maybe even a health problem has started from that traumatic stress, or maybe you stop trusting people in authority.
Then you start to practice Transcendental Meditation, to achieve a deep state of rest on a daily basis. That stress dissolves a little bit more during each meditation, or perhaps in one deeply restful session, it’s completely gone. You feel lighter, you don’t react when your boss unjustly criticizes you—you are able to defend yourself calmly, without stirring up the old feelings of disempowerment and shame. The same stressors are there in your environment, but you’re feeling stronger—it just doesn’t affect you anymore.
Instead of making such a deep impression on the physiology like a line chiseled in stone, stress becomes more like a line in water—you react for a moment, but because you are already functioning in a less stressed state, you’re more quickly free of it. The stress has been released.
It’s even possible, as you continue to dissolve stress through regular meditation, to become so established in a state of equanimity and bliss that nothing can shake you out of it. The traffic jam on the way to your child’s school, the difficult co-worker, the challenging hours your husband works—somehow you’re able to maintain that connection with the wholeness of life throughout it all. The ups and downs don’t shake you—you start seeing them as new opportunities for growth and enjoyment.
I think it’s important to note that we’re not talking about stepping away from our responsibilities in any way. We’re talking about strengthening ourselves so that whatever life brings us, we can react with calm, grace and ease. Stressors are there—modern life is stressful no matter where you live or what you do—but if you are resilient to stress, they roll off you like Teflon. It’s more like a line drawn on air—they don’t stress you at all.
And this doesn’t take years to happen. As Megan Fairchild, a principal with the New York City Ballet noticed six months after learning the TM technique, “I used to feel that things would stick to me like Velcro, and now, things just roll off. I still recognize moments happening that would normally frustrate me, but they just don’t irritate me as much as they used to. I am more able to deal with the stresses that come with my job.”
I’d also like to clarify that I’m not talking about an emotionally detached, disembodied state of being here. I’m talking about being more connected to your children and other loved ones, more loving, more fully engaged in life.
After all, when you are anxious, stressed and angry, how much help are you to those around you? A lightbulb must be fully lit to give light.
What brings in the light is the direct experience of joy, happiness—and, yes, bliss—that is already deep inside each of us. Bliss is our natural state, only it gets covered by stress. That’s why, when stress is reduced through TM—and we can directly experience that reservoir of bliss, energy, intelligence and creativity inside us all—so many aspects of life suddenly get better. We’ve removed the roadblocks and the bliss and happiness can flow. Health gets better, because with less stress, the body can heal itself more effectively. Relationships get better because the stress that came between us is starting to dissipate. Mental health improves as the anxiety, depression and anger recede.
It’s the experience of bliss that stabilizes the mind. It’s not that we infuse bliss into the mind. The mind already has bliss. It’s like a farmer who is having trouble getting water to his crops because there’s a big logjam in the irrigation canal. As soon as he removes the obstacles, the water can flow. In the same way, by removing stress, what is left is the natural state of the mind, the original state of the mind, which is bliss.
Like the beautiful, peaceful baby I met at the mall, we can tap into our own reservoir of bliss and creativity every day—it’s there waiting for us to enjoy.
ALEXANDER CN et al. 1991 Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6:189-247
EPPLEY, K.R., ABRAMS, A.I., AND SHEAR, J. 1989. Differential effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45(6), 957-974.
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.