How Sahaja Meditation Promotes Relaxation
- Sahaja meditation elicits the relaxation response and provides stress relief
- Sahaja meditation has a built-in ability to function as an emotional regulator, which helps facilitate the relaxation response
- Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness enhances resilience and coping ability
- Sahaja meditation brings about global functional changes in physiology, down-regulating autonomic (automatic or involuntary) nervous system functions (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure and respiration)
- Meditation positively influences key neurochemicals involved in promoting relaxation, including serotonin, GABA, melatonin, cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine.
- Sahaja increases interoceptive awareness and self-monitoring of autonomic functions, enabling us to increase deliberate, cognitive control over our current physiological state
How Much Time Do Americans Spend Relaxing?
- 5.3 hours of leisure time per day, on average
- 4.8 hours on weekdays
- 6.5 hours on weekends and holidays
Source: 2016 American Time Use Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Studies suggest that, more and more, Americans are having trouble relaxing and/or even granting themselves permission to relax, even late at night (10 pm to 6 am) and on weekends. In 2014, economists found that one in three U.S. workers were on the job even on weekends, compared to one in five in France, Germany, and the Netherlands (Hamermesh & Stancanelli, 2014).
According to one study, even when we do take a vacation, 54% of us spend our vacation days dealing with personal obligations such as family emergencies, doctor’s or dentist’s appointments and sick days for our children or other loved ones — in other words, not relaxing. Forty-two percent of respondents said they “felt guilty” for relaxing. For 22% of American workers, even the mere thought of asking for a few extra days off causes more stress than asking for a pay raise (Wakefield Research, 2015).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many Americans feel compelled to work during what should arguably be downtime, considering that 55%, on average, (70% of college grads) report that they get their sense of identity from their work (Gallup, 2014). But at what price?
An ability to periodically relax the mind and body is pivotal to maintaining good mental and physical health. A chronic inability to relax (“relaxation deprivation,” we could call it) actually becomes a serious health risk over the longer term.
A long-term inability to remain in a state of relaxation long enough to restore homeostatic balance triggers a chronic stress-response in the body through the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis, a brain-body circuit that plays a critical role in the body’s response to stress. The result is increased blood pressure, heart rate and an inflammatory response, all conditions that can lead to serious mental and physical health problems. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, our hormone-producing system, which, as you’ll see in a minute, plays a key role in promoting relaxation.
Why do we have trouble relaxing?
So many reasons (so many excuses?). Those of us who naturally “idle higher” may find it difficult climb off the treadmill that is daily life and just chill. Too many of us feel too guilty about relaxing to let actually ourselves relax. For some of us, relaxation may be thwarted by neurophysiological problems, such as fluctuating hormone levels, stress and a racing mind (anxiety, rumination, “overthinking,” “thinking too much”), to out-of-balance lifestyle factors (e.g., excessive alcohol or caffeine) and environmental factors (e.g., light or sounds that keep us revved up). People with mood, anxiety and attention deficit disorders, as well as certain medical conditions, often have trouble achieving and maintaining a beneficial state of relaxation.
The first, most obvious benefit of Sahaja meditation that virtually every practitioner experiences is relaxation, which, in turn, provides stress relief and establishes a base upon which deeper physiological benefits may be built.
Sahaja meditation is a safe, no-cost relaxation solution that provides deep, restorative relaxation and stress relief, and in the process, acts on mechanisms that confer much deeper mental and physical health benefits, especially over the longer term.
How Meditation Brings About Relaxation
Several studies have investigated the mechanisms through which meditation brings about relaxation. There’s widespread agreement in the scientific literature that meditation helps bring our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in balance, which reduces physiological arousal and modulates the HPA Axis, and, in turn, triggers physiological changes associated with relaxation such as, reduced respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.
The Mind-Body Connection
Is relaxation a function of the mind or the body?
The answer is: both. Recent neuroimaging studies mapping the relaxation response have proven that by changing mental activity, we can effect measurable changes in central nervous system activity (e.g., Jacobs, 2004; Lazar et al., 2000). These, and many other, studies have demonstrated that mind-body interactions are real and can be measured.
Mental relaxation feeds back to the body, leading to deeper physiological relaxation. Because the mind and body are inextricably linked, any technique that relaxes the mind relaxes the body. And vice versa. For example:
- Sahaja meditation reduces activity in paralimbic brain regions (e.g., the anterior cingulate and insula) that are known to play a role in relaxation and control sympathetic nervous system arousal and influences neural indicators of physical relaxation (e.g., simple muscle relaxation) in brain regions that are known to inhibit movement and motor activity (Rubia, 2009).
- Sahaja meditation generates alpha wave brain activity, which is associated with a beneficial, relaxed state of mind (e.g., Aftanas & Golcheikine, 2001, 2005; Cahn and Polich, 2006).
Meditation and the Relaxation Response
Sahaja almost immediately elicits the relaxation response, during the earliest phase of the meditative session.
The “relaxation response” is a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson (professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute) in the 1970s to describe a set of integrated physiological changes in the body — metabolic changes or “maintenance functions” that keep the body operating. This deep physiological shift is effectively the opposite of your body’s fight-or-flight stress response.
Benson’s earliest Harvard studies in the late 1960s were instrumental in proving the mind-body connection. They consistently revealed dramatic physiological changes as meditators “shifted from everyday thinking into meditation.” The relaxation response changes our metabolism. The body’s metabolic rate, an overall measure of biochemical activity, is reflected in the amount of oxygen consumed. Oxygen consumption dropped significantly in meditators when they switched from simply resting to meditating, and rose when they stopped meditating (Wallace, Benson, Wilson, 1971). Meditation also dramatically decreased lactate in the bloodstream. High levels of lactate have been associated with anxiety, uneasiness and disquietude; low levels, with peace and tranquility.
The finding that meditation decreases blood lactate levels through meditation has been supported by other more recent studies, as well as decreases in other physiological indicators of relaxation and stress relief such as urinary vanillylmandelic acid, and of course decreased blood pressure (Newberg, Iverson, 2003; Chung et al, 2012). These positive effects were particularly pronounced in regular, long-term meditators.
The relaxation response is, effectively, your ability to stimulate deep relaxation of muscles and organs, a sustained state of deep physical rest that, in turn, alters our physical and emotional responses to stress (Benson, 1975). During the relaxation response:
- metabolism decreases
- heart beats slower and muscles relax
- breathing (respiration) slows
- blood pressure decreases
- levels of nitric oxide increase
- blood lactate decreases
In addition to easing many stress-related ailments, the relaxation response has been found to help relieve depression, pain, anxiety, hypertension and many other stress-related illnesses. National Institutes of Health meta-reviews have shown that relaxation can be helpful in managing a variety of other health conditions, including anxiety associated with illnesses or medical procedures, insomnia, labor pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction (NIH: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2017).
Relaxation Through Emotional Regulation and Stress Relief
It goes without saying that when we’re stressed, anxious or emotionally unstable, we find it harder to relax at the very point in time that, ironically, we need to most. And if we can’t relax, we’re effectively running in chronic stress mode. Often, the root cause is a flight-or-flight switch stuck in the ON position, triggered by our sense that our coping resources are insufficient.
When we initially appraise an external event as challenging, harmful, or threatening, the physiological systems involved in our fight-or-flight stress response kick in, along with the subjective experience of distress. When we’re confronted by a stressor that threatens our stability or well-being, we immediately perform a cognitive appraisal of the situation to determine whether we can manage the stressor or whether it’s beyond our coping resources.
We’ll either experience the stressor as eustress (positive stress that we perceive to be within our coping ability) or distress (negative stress that we perceive to fall outside our coping ability).
Distress is that condition we’re referring to when we say we feel “stressed.” Continually overestimating the significance of negative events leads to excessive emotional reactivity and wear-and-tear on all bodily systems. And certainly an inability to relax.
Many studies have shown that meditation improves our coping abilities. Meditation is believed to act on arousal and neurocognitive processes that modulate the relationship between our perception of a stressor and our appraisal of how it will affect us (Holzel et al., 2011).
Sahaja meditation increases our ability to appraise situations calmly, reduces our emotional reactivity, and improves our ability to focus and manage stressors. It does this in part by enhancing our ability to control what we pay attention to. Because meditation can influence the connections between brain regions responsible for higher cognitive functions (such as attention, thought, reasoning and memory) and our emotional limbic system, our appraisal and interpretation of stressful events — and ultimately our responses to them — can dramatically improve.
Sahaja mediation has been found to reducing the emotional significance of negative events during the evaluative stage or appraisal. One 2014 study of long-term Sahaja practitioners found that Sahaja meditation exerts top-down emotional regulation, enabling flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). Thus, emotional appraisal transforms into cognitive appraisal, which allows more flexible responses to emotional challenges — relying on rational, objective problem-solving skills, rather than reacting emotionally.
Other studies indicate that meditation can reduce our automatic stress responses and increase the relaxation response by increasing attentional factors that impart control over the autonomic nervous system, reduce worry and rumination (Jain et al., 2007), and alleviate mood disturbances (Hofmann et al., 2010).
Meditation enhances overall quality of life, promoting calmness and tranquility. A recent study of Sahaja meditation practitioners found that just one week of Sahaja meditation 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).
This study found that 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 a broad spectrum of facets.
Sahaja meditation deploys the dual and simultaneous techniques of attentional control and replenishment of the energy force that balances the sympathetic nervous system activity that underlies emotional processing. Thoughtless awareness, in turn, enhances attentional control. We devote less attention and emotional energy to negative thoughts, memories and feelings that keep us revved up. Over time, your attention gradually shifts from the past to the present, promoting an ability to relax in the moment. Over the longer term, your psychological resilience increases, which better equips you to cope with daily stressors and promotes equanimity on an ongoing basis.
Several studies have shown that Sahaja has a built-in ability to function as an emotional regulator, which helps establish a life of emotional stability and peace. And thanks to the human brain’s natural plasticity, short-term state changes may evolve into long-term trait changes with time and practice. For example, recent fMRI studies (Hernández, 2016) found increased gray matter volume in brain areas of Sahaja meditators associated with increased “good life” traits such as personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, self-directedness and autonomy that are known to be good predictors of good health. These findings suggest that the long-term practice of Sahaja meditation may increase neuroplasticity and enhance our ability to regulate emotions.
These fMRI studies also found that, in fact, long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume across their entire brains, as well as in regions associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, monitoring of autonomic functions, and feelings of empathy and compassion. This enhanced ability to monitor your own autonomic state (e.g., heart rate, etc.) enables you to be aware, on a moment-by-moment basis, of your own interoceptive state (visceral awareness or sense of your body’s physiological state), and even increase deliberate, cognitive control over your current physiological state. We develop a distinct sense of our own homeostatic activity and the physiological condition of all the tissues in our bodies, including, for example, degree of muscle tension and elevated heart rate.
Regular Sahaja meditation can positively shift our emotional set-point on a long-term basis. Functional imaging studies that directly compared meditation to relaxation have found that meditation also activates key attention (fronto-parietal) and affective or emotional (fronto-limbic) networks involved in internalized attention, emotional regulation and contentment (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2002, 2003; Newberg, Iverson, 2003; Cahn & Polich, 2006).
The effects of workplace stress, as we all know, can linger into the hours when we should be relaxing. Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness or “thought reduction” has been found to have specific effects on work stress and occupational health. Thoughtless awareness transcends the ordinary mental, physical and emotional planes of consciousness where we think, feel and analyze, allowing us to “go offline to make repairs” to our emotional and cognitive processing (Manocha et al., 2011).
In fact, studies show that experienced Sahaja meditators are even able to switch off irrelevant neural circuitry that interferes with their ability to relax and function optimally, allowing them to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting thoughts and feelings. Sahaja meditators, compared to beginners, had higher psychoemotional stability — lower levels of trait anxiety and neuroticism. They also had a wider spectrum of positive emotional experiences and were shown to bounce back quicker after stressful events (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2005).
Meditation teaches us to pay nonjudgmental, nonreactive attention to all aspects of experience, both internal and external. Some studies have indicated that long-term meditators, even when resting, may be entering into a semi-meditative state, and that regular meditation may help them achieve a permanent reduction of unhealthy internal mental dialogue. This special ability, cultivated through meditation, could be immensely helpful for people whose ability to relax is impeded by negative thoughts.
Meditation as a Global Autonomic Regulator
Sahaja meditation, with its global effects on body and brain functions, helps establish a mind-body harmony, in part, through regulation of the body’s autonomic (involuntary) systems. By down-regulating the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis, meditation reduces stress, prolactin and TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels (Jevning et al., 1978).
Thus, meditation helps to maintain resting or parasympathetic predominance (Young and Taylor, 1998) among both experienced and novice meditators (Zeidan et al., 2010). In fact, EEG studies show that Sahaja meditation is associated with enhanced frontal midline theta activity (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2005), which originates from the anterior cingulate cortex and controls parasympathetic or resting activity.
Sahaja meditation has been found to regulate the autonomic nervous system, reducing physiological arousal and triggering key physiological changes such as: reduced respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure and regulation of blood glucose and the stress hormone cortisol. One 2012 2-week trial of Sahaja meditation found that hypertensive participants who received meditation treatment signiﬁcantly improved both systolic (9.4 mm Hg decrease) and diastolic (12.32 mm Hg decrease) blood pressure and had better blood pressure control than control hypertensives who received only conventional Western medical treatment. (Chung et al, 2012). This study found that 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 and emotions.
Regular meditation can continually reset our metabolic functioning, even with varying levels of stress. This internal metabolic resetting forms the baseline trait characteristics necessary for all potential changes brought about by meditation. Thus, meditation produces a continuum of global regulatory changes at various behavioral levels that ultimately promote equilibrium and tranquility.
Once you give yourself permission to relax and become better at remaining in a calm, peaceful state for longer periods of time, you’re likely to find that you seldom need to “will” yourself to relax. And if you’re meditating, you may find that you need less “planned relaxation time.”
Meditation Influences Relaxation-Related Neurochemicals
Meditation positively influences neurotransmitters and neurohormones involved in bringing about the relaxation response.
- Serotonin the “feel-good” neurotransmitter (associated with positive mood), especially in long-term meditators (Newberg & Iverson, 2003; Bujatti, 1976; Walton, et al, 1995; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004b). Serotonin also plays a role in sleep cycles, circadian rhythm, and autonomic processes such as blood pressure, body temperature and endocrine system function.
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyricacid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has a calming, anti-anxiety effect on the brain by modulating the activity of other “mental health neurotransmitters,” such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (Elias & Wilson, 2000).
- Melatonin, “the sleep hormone,” promotes calmness, relaxation and ultimately sleep by regulating our circadian rhythm (sleeping and waking) cycle (Tooley et al., 2000; Harinath et al., 2004; Massion et al., 1995; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004a, b). Closely linked to serotonin, melatonin also plays a key role in mood stabilization (including depression), positive affect, stress-prevention and aging (Pacchierotti et al., 2001).
- Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which increases when we experience stress and anxiety and can even cascade throughout the body for hours after a stressful event. Regular meditators have been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol (Sudsuang et al., 1991; Newberg & Iverson, 2003). A study of long-term Sahaja meditators found that meditation significantly decreased blood cortisol levels, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels (Rai et al, 2013). Other studies have found that urine and plasma cortisol levels decrease during meditation (Livesey et al, 2000; Walton et al, 1995; Sudsuang, 1991; Jevning, R., 1978). Long-term meditative practice reduces adrenocortical activity (steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands), including the release of cortisol (Jevning, et al., 1978; Sudsuang, et al., 1991).
- Norepinephrine (noradrenaline), the “neurotransmitter of fear,” is the predominant neurochemical involved in creating or exacerbating anxiety, causing the heart rate to increase, the release of stored glucose (simple sugar) and increased blood flow to the muscles. During meditation, respiration and heart rates decrease, which in turn, reduces activity in areas of the brain that produce norepinephrine. Decreased norepinephrine ultimately decreases stimulation of the hypothalamus, decreasing the stress-related production of cortisol and ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) (Newberg & Iverson, 2003).
- Epinephrine (Adrenaline), both a neurotransmitter (acting in the brain) and a stress hormone (acting on other sites, such as the heart or glands), stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to produce fight-or-flight responses, such as increased heart rate, increased blood glucose, and increased blood flow to muscles. Studies have found reduced epinephrine levels during meditation, reflecting the systemic change in autonomic balance brought about by meditation (Walton, K.G., et al, 1995; Infante, 2001). One study found that, during meditation, the hypothalamus inhibited the adrenaline output of the adrenal medulla, which decreased anxiety. Decreased adrenaline, coupled with the deep relaxation response experienced during meditation, allows the hypothalamus to bring about tranquility (Chugh, 1987).
Relaxation and Then Some
Several studies of Sahaja meditation have indicated that relaxation therapies and relaxation-only forms of meditation (such as Hatha Yoga) generally tend to only provide short-term state effects, rather than lasting trait effects that have a long-term impact on our mental and physical health and well-being (Zollo & Berchicci, 2007; Manocha et al., 2009; Aftanas & Golosheykin, 2005, 2002, 2001). The deep introspective nature of Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness has been found to be more successful at producing trait changes such as: improved mood, sense of well-being and stress reduction, anxiety and negative emotions. In the Zollo & Berchicci occupational study, Sahaja meditation was also found to stimulate self-transcending behaviors, such as striving for self-improvement, increased openness to change, and developing a broader, more evolved sense of self. (For an in-depth look at this study, see Social Consciousness: How Sahaja Meditation’s Thoughtless Awareness Helps Corporate Managers Develop a Social Conscience.)
Relaxation is the first essential or “base rung” on the ladder of escalating benefits that Sahaja meditation can confer. While Sahaja meditation does elicit the relaxation response and provide a foundation of stress relief, it can act on neurophysiological mechanisms that confer much deeper mental and physical health benefits, especially over the longer term.
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