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Sahaja Relieves Anxiety
How Sahaja Meditation Helps Relieve Anxiety
We all know what it’s like to feel anxious, and we are all a bit neurotic from time to time. Who hasn’t double-checked to make sure that a door was locked, or that a stove burner was turned off? A normal level of anxiety can actually be healthy and adaptive. It can be the motivator that spurs us across the finish line. But when anxiety becomes one’s primary daily experience, intervention is required. With effective treatment, people with anxiety disorders can go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives.
State vs. Trait Anxiety
Anxiety can manifest as a state or a trait. State anxiety is transient, generally triggered by a stressful situation. We experience an unpleasant emotional response while anticipating and coping with situations that we perceive as threatening or dangerous. Trait anxiety, which is caused by the personality trait of neuroticism or harm avoidance, is a tendency to respond with increased anxiety when anticipating a range of situations.
The relatively short-term nature of state anxiety generally makes it easier to treat than trait anxiety. For example, for anxiety disorders that involve more acute causes (e.g., Acute Stress Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, a panic attack), short-term therapies may be enough, especially with early intervention. Trait changes, on the other hand, are lasting, long-term effects that develop over time and tend to require ongoing “maintenance” to sustain since people with trait anxiety always have the potential to become anxious again. Personality traits don’t change overnight. Aggressive people don’t suddenly become passive; introverts don’t suddenly become extroverts. And people with anxious tendencies don’t suddenly shed their fears, obsessions, or phobias overnight. Generally, trait anxiety must be dissolved over time.
Meditation may provide both short-term and long-term anxiety relief, and it can be effective either as part of a combination treatment approach or, in some instances, as a standalone therapy.
How Sahaja meditation Helps Relieve Anxiety
Meditation induces lasting changes in emotional processing
For people who are anxious, Sahaja meditation offers a safe environment. Meditation helps us process and regulate emotions by exerting attentional (controlling what we pay attention to) and cognitive control (regulating our thoughts and feelings).
Meditation regulates emotion by stabilizing our attentional processes, enhancing our awareness of discursive or seemingly disconnected sensory events (e.g., sounds or smells) that act as anxiety triggers, and enabling us to disengage from the resulting emotional appraisals that would otherwise trigger anxiety.
Meditation can influence both the symptoms of anxiety, as well as the avoidance behaviors that we employ to ward off anxiety.
People with anxiety tend to experience events as black or white, which leads to cognitive distortions — thinking errors that provoke unnecessary fears. In allowing you to detach from these negative thoughts and feelings, meditation helps you create a perspective that’s more balanced, objective, realistic and, ultimately, soothing. The ability to exercise cognitive control over thoughts and feelings can regulate emotions in many different ways; for example, by changing our expectations and interpretations of stressful or emotionally-charged events, or by learning to associate new emotional responses with stressful events. Often, once we face a painful memory or a fearful situation, the reality is not as bad as we feared. The feared outcome is usually worse than the actual outcome. For example, someone who experiences heightened anxiety every time she drives a car (or even an hour before she climbs into the car) because she has an overwhelming fear of dying in a car accident might learn to reduce that anxiety by repeatedly reminding herself that the odds of dying in a car crash are something like 1 in 16,337. To soothe the anxiety she feels before she gets into the car, she might remind herself that the likelihood of dying in a car crash without being in a car is 0 percent.
An anxious person may be able to consciously, cognitively override ruminative thought processes by acknowledging, “Oh, you’ve had this concern before and nothing bad happened, remember?” But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a solution that automatically relieved our anxiety? Meditation may be just such a solution. In fact,
one small 6-week study of Sahaja meditation showed a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression in 24 patients with Major Depression, compared to a control group and a group receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy (Morgan, 2001).
Anxiety, at its core, results from an inability to govern ruminative cognitive processes, thus if we can control rumination, we can control anxiety. Ruminative thoughts are those which dwell endlessly on the past, chewing the same negative thoughts and feelings over and over again in a non-constructive way. A more formal definition of rumination is: “a mode of responding to distress that involves repetitively and passively focusing on symptoms of distress and on the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms” (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008). You can see how rumination can provoke chronic distress and anxiety and, of course, even more rumination — a vicious cycle.
Sahaja meditation allows us to pay objective, nonjudgmental, nonreactive attention to all aspects of our experience, both internal and external, which helps decrease the emotional reactivity and negative feelings that are commonly experienced in anxiety disorders, such as irrational fear, apprehensiveness and dread.
Spending time in a higher state of consciousness — thoughtless awareness — allows us to transcend the mental plane of thoughts and feelings. We’re able to direct our attention, rather than allowing it to wander into stressful territory. From this higher plane of consciousness, we can detach and observe our thoughts and feelings non-emotionally, and with clarity.
Meditation enhances our ability to control what we pay attention to. Enhanced attentional control and the ability to resist distracting or disturbing thoughts and feelings reduces our emotional reactivity by controlling the amount of attention we allocate to processing emotional events and by preventing negative emotions from intruding on our thoughts and triggering reactive — and often, self-damaging — behaviors.
Sahaja meditation increases the quality of mindfulness
Mindfulness is the ability to self-regulate one’s attention to focus on the present moment with curiosity, openness and acceptance. The ability to pay attention to the present moment includes self-awareness — the ability to observe and monitor your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening and to be in touch with your actual felt experience. In this present-centered awareness, each thought, feeling and sensation that arises in one’s attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is, without judgment or emotional reactivity. This calm, dispassionate state of self-observation inserts, in essence, a “space” between our perceptions and our responses. That open space allows us to respond to situations reflectively, rather than reflexively.
Mindfulness during meditation does not directly address the content of thought; rather, it changes our relationship to our thoughts. Meditation allows us to note thoughts and feelings without viewing them as dangerous or frightening and without engaging in elaborate cognitive processing. Anxiety is usually caused by thoughts that are merely perceptions, rather than realities. Enhanced mindfulness gives us the ability to tell the difference between the two.
One study found that four 20-minute meditation classes reduced state anxiety by as much as 39 percent (Zeidan et al, 2013). Meditation was found to decrease anxiety by activating a network of brain regions that normally display decreased activity during anxious thought processes. Meditation increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain area that controls worrying, and the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that governs thinking and emotion. Activation of the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex through meditation regulates cognitive control of the ruminative thought processes often involved in anxiety, as well as depression.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) helps prevent emotional disturbances from interfering with normal mental functioning. The ACC has the ability to inhibit activity in the emotion-processing amygdala. By allowing the brain to switch off its default mode network (DMN), meditation offers hope for controlling intrusive thoughts. The default mode network functions as the brain’s “standby” mode. The DMN is a network of brain regions (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex) that are active when the brain is idling, or at wakeful rest — in other words, when we’re not attending to a particular task and aren’t focused on the external world. The DMN kicks in when we’re daydreaming, during attention lapses, or engaged in ruminative thought. Overactivation of the DMN is associated with anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Some studies have found that experienced meditators experience decreased activity in the default mode network, even when not meditating. One Yale University study found that experienced mindfulness meditators can even learn to switch off the brain’s default mode network at will (Brewer, J., 2011).
Zeidan et al (2013) also found that meditation increased activity in the anterior insula, which evaluates and integrates cognitive, emotional and sensory input and creates our continuous, fluctuating awareness of self. The anterior insula has been linked to interoceptive function. Interoception is a form of visceral awareness — our sense of the physiological state of our bodies, including homeostatic activity and the condition of tissues, such as temperature, sensations of pain, itching, muscular and visceral sensations, hunger and thirst. Interoceptive awareness is created by homeostatic meta-representations generated in the right anterior insula, which form the basis of our sense of the material self as a sentient, or knowing, feeling entity (Craig, 2003). In other words, interception helps provide us with emotional awareness.
One 2016 Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry (Hernández et al, 2016) found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with, in part, sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, interoceptive perception and self-monitoring of autonomic functions. Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular practice of Sahaja meditation may enhance the functions controlled by these regions; for example, by exerting top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). Together, these results provide evidence that regular Sahaja meditation practice may enhance interoception and emotional awareness neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.
The 2014 Reva study of Sahaja practitioners found that the enlarged gray matter volume in the right ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex (vmOFC) may also be associated with the findings of four other studies (Chung et al, 2012; Morgan, 2001; Manocha et al, 2011; Manocha et al, 2012) that found that Sahaja meditation may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Sahaja meditation’s effect on these fronto-limbic brain systems of emotional regulation may have a positive regulatory effect on anxiety.
The Reva study found that the emotional stability of Sahaja meditators is more than a general flattening of the emotional responses to external events; rather it results from the ability to prevent intense, full-scale, potentially harmful, physiological reactions in response to strong adverse conditions. Emotional events of moderate intensity were able to freely pass appraisal “gates,” whereas highly arousing stimuli heavily activated regulatory mechanisms. Through the practice of Sahaja meditation, the process of appraising an event’s motivational significance undergoes a change which allows us to control emerging emotions, and over time, this change can gradually become automatic. Emotional appraisal transforms into cognitive appraisal, thus allowing more flexible responses to emotional challenges; e.g., our rational, objective problem-solving skills take over, rather than emotional overreaction.
Another study found that meditation allowed meditators to uncouple negative emotional responses by attending to interoceptive or internal bodily states (Ulrich et al, 2011). Because meditation allows us to control attention, we can take control of our thoughts and adjust the tone and meaning of emotionally-charged sensory events (such as a smell, sound or images) that may be triggering anxiety. Individuals with PTSD, for example, can learn how to tolerate unpleasant feelings and sensations by increasing their capacity for interoception and self-awareness, which helps them regulate their physiological arousal to these negative feelings. Through meditation, they’ll experience an increase in positive emotions, decrease in negative emotions, and an increase in their physical vitality and attunement to their own bodies.
Meditation Decreases Anxiety-Provoking Stress
Therapeutic de-linking and the relaxation response
During Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness, we are able to inhibit impulses to move, act or respond. Thoughts and feelings are calmly observed without triggering a reaction, judgment, or an impulse to act. This response inhibition, de-linking of action from impulse, can promote healing. With practice, the de-linking of action from impulse allows us to recognize and understand the automatic, reflexive, and unconscious nature of our thoughts and feelings. We become aware of how a particular stressor triggers certain negative thoughts and emotions, which helps us understand why we react to them the way we do and change our habitual responses. This enhanced awareness helps us put our fears in the proper perspective and realize when we’re overreacting.
De-linking always, at the very least, brings about a relaxation response, thus helping to relieve the negative effects of stress. De-linking blunts overall sympathetic nervous system tone, which produces equanimity and a sense of well-being. For many, the process of merely inhibiting movement is relaxing. For people with anxiety, for example, de-linking through meditation helps enable gradual, systematic desensitization so that relaxation can occur. Learning to associate discomfort or anxiety with a suspended response can autonomically desensitize and blunt their usual, habitual sympathetic nervous system response to stressors in the same way that exposure therapy for people with phobias helps them become emotionally insensitive or unresponsive to the phobic stimulus through repeated, controlled exposure to it. (For example, a person with an elevator phobia repeatedly rides elevators with their safe person and ultimately becomes desensitized to their fear of elevators.)
Decreasing the physiological stress response through meditation
A recent study of Sahaja meditation practitioners found that just one week of Sahaja meditation treatment produced signiﬁcant improvements in quality of life, anxiety reduction, and blood pressure control, compared to the control group who received only conventional Western medical treatment (Chung et al, 2012). While similar anxiety levels were observed in both the meditation and control groups at baseline, participants in the control group actually reported greater anxiety and a small but signiﬁcant decline in quality of life during the 2-week trial (as measured by two World Health Organization Quality of Life tests: the WHOQOL-BREF and WHOQOL-SRPB).
The therapeutic effect of Sahaja meditation was achieved during the state of thoughtless awareness where participants were better able to introspect, address, and resolve the distress caused by negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
This improved ability to cope with negative stimuli was found to reduce anxiety and improve self-perceived quality of life across all aspects of life.
Another study found that Sahaja meditation reduces stress, fear and anxiety, increases psychosocial coping abilities, and helps build long-term resilience against emotional challenges (Sandeep, R. et al, 2010). Thoughtless awareness was found to trigger positive changes in psychological, neurological and autonomic functioning by modulating limbic (emotional) system activity, which can, in turn, modulate sympathetic nervous activity and regulate endocrine and neurotransmitter functioning. Other studies have found that a Sahaja meditative practice can help balance or restore normal functioning of such homeostatic mechanisms (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005).
The more frequently we experience thoughtless awareness, the greater the benefits.
An Australian study examining the overall health of 343 experienced meditators (2+ years) found that thoughtless awareness may have been the most significant contributor to their functional health, and that the more frequently they experienced thoughtless awareness, the better their health. But the study also showed that meditators who experienced thoughtless awareness even once or twice per month had better functional health, vitality, and quality of life than the general population (Manocha, Black, Wilson, 2012).
The anxiety-heart rate variability factor
Researchers investigating the neurophysiology of PTSD have found that heart rate variability (HRV) may be the best way to measure the interaction of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system tone — that is, how well the brainstem is regulating the body’s nervous system response (van der Kolk, 2006). (HRV is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats, measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval.) Low HRV has been associated with depression and anxiety, coronary vascular disease, and increased mortality. High HRV is associated with positive emotions and resistance to stress.
van der Kolk’s research shed light on PTSD patients’ inability to regulate arousal. They displayed increased baseline autonomic arousal and a lower resting heart rate, compared to normal control subjects, suggesting that in order to come to terms with past traumas, we must learn how to regulate our physiological arousal.
One large, randomized 2013 study of long-term Sahaja meditators found that Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on heart rate variability, as well as on oxidative stress, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and endothelial function, a known culprit behind coronary artery disease. HRV and endothelial function improved and blood cortisol levels significantly decreased, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels in meditators, compared to the non-meditating control population (Rai et al, 2013). The results were corroborated in a second study of diabetics, which found that just 20 minutes per day of Sahaja meditation has an immediate and marked effect on HRV by switching off the “stress button.”
For an in-depth look at the brain’s biochemical response to stress, see information on Practical Cognitive Strategies for Coping with Stress.
Meditation influences neurochemical imbalances
Anxiety can be triggered and/or worsened by fluctuations in the levels of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and neurohormones) such as, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), and the stress hormone cortisol.
Meditation’s ability to effect these key neurochemicals helps regulate the deepest aspects of human experience, such as mood, awareness, attention, perception, reasoning, intuition, self-esteem and judgment — all of which can play a role in anxiety.
Meditation has been found to increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (Elias et l, 2000). GABA has a calming, anti-anxiety effect on the brain by modulating or regulating the activity of other neurotransmitters that influence mood and anxiety, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. GABA is, in fact, the key neurotransmitter targeted by benzodiazepine medications, which are commonly prescribed for anxiety.
Meditation has also been found to decrease stress hormones that are key culprits driving anxiety, such as norepinephrine (Newberg & Iverson, 2003), epinephrine (Walton et al, 1995; Infante, J.R., 2001), and cortisol (Sudsuang et al, 1991; Newberg & Iverson, 2003). Long-term meditative practice reduces adrenocortical activity (steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands), including the release of cortisol (Sudsuang, et al., 1991).
Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is sometimes referred to as “the neurotransmitter of fear,” and as such, plays a central role in anxiety. It’s involved in tripping the fight-or-flight mechanism, which launches the body’s innate stress response. Norepinephrine and epinephrine both stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and their secretion is, in turn, is stimulated by sympathetic nervous system responses. It can be a vicious cycle that helps perpetuate anxiety and may help explain why anxiety seems to literally feed on itself.
Reduced epinephrine levels reflect, in part, the systemic change in balance of the autonomic nervous system that is brought about by meditation (Walton et al, 1995; Infante, J.R., 2001). During meditation, adrenaline (epinephrine) output is inhibited, which decreases anxiety. Decreased adrenaline, coupled with the deep relaxation state experienced during meditation, allows the hypothalamus to bring about tranquility (Chugh, D., 1987).
One study found that Sahaja meditation triggered a 70 percent increase in beta-endorphins in men, as measured in blood plasma levels (Mishra et al, 1993). Endorphins act as natural mood lifters and have a calming effect, creating an all-encompassing sense of joy and well-being. They also help reduce blood pressure and respiration rates, and reduce fear and pain.
For details on how meditation influences neurochemicals, see: Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.
Long-lasting trait changes
The regular practice of Sahaja meditation can produce long-lasting trait changes that reduce anxiety and increase emotional stability.
One EEG study investigated how experienced, long-term Sahaja practitioners, compared to non-meditators, responded to negative stimuli. Researchers found that the Sahaja meditators had significantly greater emotional stability, ability to detach from negative events, and greater emotional resilience to stressful events. They scored significantly lower in the personality traits of anxiety, neuroticism, psychosis, and depression and increased emotional intelligence. They were better at identifying and expressing their emotions than non-meditators. They experienced a wider spectrum of positive emotions and bounced back quicker after stressful events (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005).
We all have the capacity to convert anxious, negative thoughts into positive, hopeful thoughts. Through Sahaja meditation, we may develop the capacity to decrease state anxiety through neurophysiological changes and, over the long term, even alter the expression of genes that can trigger trait anxiety.
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