Sahaja Relieves Stress | Sahaja Online

Stress Management

Sahaja Relieves Stress

Highlights:

  • Sahaja meditation regulates emotion (thus managing stress) through two mechanisms: 1) attentional control (by controlling what we devote attention to) and; 2) cognitive control (by exercising conscious control over our thoughts and feelings).
  • Stress relief, in Sahaja meditation, could be thought of as the “gateway benefit.” While Sahaja meditation provides stress relief, the benefits of Sahaja meditation extend far beyond stress relief.
  • Meditation positively influences key neurochemicals involved in our automatic stress response and sense of well-being, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, serotonin, GABA, glutatmate, dopamine and beta-endorphins.
  • One study comparing Sahaja meditation to conventional medical treatment found that meditation significantly improved both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and increased blood pressure control.
  • A study showed that Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness had a therapeutic effect because participants were better able to introspect, address, and resolve the distress caused by negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This improved ability to cope with adverse events was found to reduce anxiety and improve self-perceived quality of life.
  • A study of Sahaja meditators showed that Sahaja mediation exerts top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states.
  • A 2016 study of Sahaja meditation study found that 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.

The first, most obvious benefit of meditation that most every practitioner experiences is stress relief. And most all forms of meditation help relieve stress, even techniques that do not attempt to transcend the relaxation model of meditation. But in Sahaja meditation, stress relief is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sure, Sahaja provides automatic and immediate stress relief; it’s part of the basic benefits package offered by even the most elementary Sahaja techniques. But neurophysiological studies have consistently shown that Sahaja meditation automatically provides much deeper health benefits, benefits that enable practitioners to achieve long-term stress management far beyond mere temporary relief of acute stress.

Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness has been found to evoke unique patterns of neurophysiological activity in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, heightened attentional skills, and enhanced brain plasticity (Aftanas, Golosheikin, 2003). The result is a more robust long-term mind-body resilience, a hardiness that equips us to weather whatever stressors may come our way. (For a comparison of Sahaja meditation and relaxation therapies, see: Sahaja Meditation is More Than Relaxation Therapy.)

Sahaja meditation regulates emotion (thus managing stress) through two mechanisms: 1) attentional control (by controlling what we devote attention to) and; 2) emotional and cognitive control (by exercising conscious control over our thoughts and feelings). Meditation increases positive emotions, emotional stability and resilience, and strengthens our ability to inhibit negative cognitive and emotional thought processes that exacerbate stress and are linked to depression, anxiety and other affective (emotional) disorders. Sahaja meditation activates key attention (fronto-parietal) and affective or emotional (fronto-limbic) networks involved in internalized attention, emotional regulation and contentment (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a,b, 2003; Newberg, 2001; Newberg, Iverson, 2003; Cahn and Polich, 2006; Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007; Lutz et al., 2004).

In other words, meditation activates brain areas responsible for autonomic (automatic or involuntary) emotional and attentional control. In fact, some studies of Sahaja meditation have suggested that regular meditation may help practitioners achieve a permanent reduction of unhealthy internal mental dialogue  (e.g., Cahn and Polich, 2006; Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005), suggesting that Sahaja can induce lasting emotional trait effects, beyond the shorter-term state effects. The Aftanas and Golocheikine study documented the long-term neurophysiological effects of thoughtless awareness on emotional stability and psychological resilience.

Experienced Sahaja meditators showed much lower psychological and physiological reactivity to stressful stimuli and greater ability to detach from negative events.

They showed lower levels of trait anxiety and neuroticism and greater emotional intelligence: they could better identify their emotions, enjoyed a wider spectrum of positive emotional experiences, and were shown to bounce back quicker after stressful events.

Stress Management through Attentional Control

Sahaja meditation enhances 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 be changed for the better.

People who practice Sahaja on an ongoing basis develop a built-in stress management mechanism. Experience refines our ability to assess our own stress levels, detect nervous system and energy center imbalances and perform the necessary meditation techniques for repairing and optimizing our cognitive and emotional functioning. Regular meditation constantly works to keep stress in check by keeping our mind-body systems — from our neurochemicals to our inner energy centers — nourished, balanced and revitalized.

One 2015 fMRI study found that during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control (Hernández et la, 2015).  After passing through an initial intense neural self-control process necessary to silence the mind, Sahaja meditators experienced reduced brain activity commensurate with the deepening of mental silence (across the right inferior frontal cortex/insula), reflecting an effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.

Stress Management Through Emotional and Cognitive Control

The thoughtless awareness state experienced during Sahaja meditation manages our thoughts and reactions, and even helps eliminate thoughts that aren’t serving us well. At first, the thoughtless awareness state steadies your attention and directs it inward. This allows you to simply observe your thoughts, feelings and emotions, and with full clarity.

By definition, thoughtless awareness greatly reduces any kind of thought process. However, in practice, thoughts do arise intermittently, separated by bouts of thoughtlessness or stillness of the mind. Thought reduction leaves us with fewer thoughts to deal with. With what’s left of our thoughts, thoughtless awareness influences our cognitive appraisal and interpretation of stressors and increases our confidence in our ability to handle them.

During thoughtless awareness, we can segregate the contents of awareness from awareness itself. We normally experience ourselves as a system of thoughts and feelings. But in thoughtless awareness, we are able to detach from ego and shed the thoughts, feelings and ideas wrapped up in our sense of self.

During Sahaja meditation, the meditator is able to inhibit impulses to move, act or respond. Overall sympathetic nervous system tone is blunted, which produces a sense of equanimity and well-being. Thoughts and feelings rise and fall and are calmly observed without reaction or judgment. This response inhibition or de-linking of action from impulse helps relieve the negative effects of stress, and may ultimately have much deeper implications for healing.

We become “self-possessed;” that is, we have increased control of our faculties, feelings, and behavior. When we believe that we can manage adverse events, we cope more effectively and experience fewer effects of stress. By rebalancing our emotional and cognitive processes, thoughtless awareness reduces our reactivity to stressors — both internal and external — and functions as a “response regulatory mechanism” for our negative thoughts and emotions, which helps us effectively, skillfully respond to challenges, especially in high-stress, high-stakes situations. The result is an inner calm that completely relaxes the mind and body.

The regular practice of meditation increases our awareness of how our thoughts and emotions arise in response to stressors and how we tend to react to them. Enhanced awareness improves our overall vitality and coping skills, reduces negative emotions, and allows us to frame problems in the proper perspective, perceive them realistically, and solve them effectively. In the longer term, the de-linking of action from impulse allows us to recognize and understand our automatic, reflexive, and unconscious thought and behavior patterns.

The process of focusing inward and focusing on the present with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude triggers a shift in perspective, both intellectually and emotionally, allowing us to shed the burdens of negative stress and understand the true nature of our stressors. We can view problems clearly and without attaching negative thoughts or feelings, which improves our self-esteem and self-confidence, which, in turn, leads to making better choices and improved overall cognitive functioning, including our ability to solve problems effectively and manage adverse events. When we sense that we’re not performing at optimum levels, our level of distress is ratcheted up. In increasing overall cognitive performance (e.g., sharper focus, improved problem-solving and decision-making ability), meditation enables us to better cope with stressful events on an ongoing basis.

In time, we begin to generalize and consciously apply healthy, appropriate concepts of delinking in our daily lives.

Many Sahaja researchers believe it is likely that many of the beneficial effects of meditation revolve around the reduction of negative emotion and the increase of positive emotional attitude toward oneself and others (Cahn and Polich, 2006). One way to reach this state is by reducing the emotional significance of negative events during the evaluative stage or appraisal.

One 2014 study of long-term Sahaja practitioners 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 kick in, rather than leaving us at the mercy of emotional overreaction.

(For more, see: Psychological Consequences of Thoughtless Awareness: Automatic Self-Therapy through Attending and Abstaining.)

 

Meditation Enhances Quality of Life

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).

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.

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 via the hypothalamus. (The hypothalamus regulates metabolic processes such as glandular activity, blood pressure, body temperature, appetite, energy balance, and other autonomic functions.) Other studies have found that conditioning of these brain systems through a Sahaja meditative practice can help balance or restore normal functioning of such homeostatic mechanisms (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005).

The benefits of Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness appear to increase with the frequency with which we experience it. An Australian study examining the overall health of 343 experienced meditators (2 years or more) 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).

Other studies have reported a significant difference in degree of improvement in work-related stress and depression for Sahaja’s thoughtless awareness approach to meditation, as compared to non-mental silence forms of meditation, such as relaxation meditation (Manocha, Black et al, 2011).

Through meditation, we become better at managing environmental stressors, particularly in demanding, high-pressure environments. (See: Sahaja meditation Relieves Occupational Stress, Depression and Anxiety).

 

 

The Automatic Biochemical Influence of Meditation

Significantly greater gray matter concentration and density has been found in the right hippocampus of experienced meditators, which helps them cognitively, deliberately regulate emotional responses (Hölzel, B., Ott, U., et al, 2008). The hippocampus helps down-regulate the amygdala, our emotion-processing factory. The amygdala and the hippocampus are a pair of small brain structures that work in tandem to generate emotions, attach emotions to memories, and store and index those memories. By regulating or dampening the amygdala’s reaction to potential stressors, meditation can help nip stress-related illnesses in the bud.

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 across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique. The study also found increased gray matter volume in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, monitoring of autonomic functions, and feelings of empathy and compassion. Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular practice of Sahaja 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). Researchers found that Sahaja meditation’s effect on these fronto-limbic brain systems of emotional regulation may have a positive regulatory effect on stress and anxiety.

Together, these studies provide evidence that regular Sahaja practice may enhance interoception and emotional awareness neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.

Sahaja meditation allows you to directly influence the functioning of your central nervous system. Many studies have shown that meditation heavily influences the Limbic-Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (LHPA) Axis, a brain-body circuit which plays a critical role in the body’s response to stress (e.g., Jevning, et al., 1978; Sudsuang, et al., 1991). The hypothalamus is a critical component of our limbic (emotional) system that integrates mind-body nervous system responses. Inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system during meditation can have many calming, anti-anxiety affects; for example, inhibiting the hypothalamus can inhibit the production and release of stress hormones both during and after meditation.

Meditation positively influences key neurochemicals involved in our automatic stress response and sense of well-being, including:

  • Meditation has been found to reduce epinephrine (adrenaline) levels (Walton, K.G., et al, 1995; Infante, J.R., 2001)
  • One study found that Sahaja meditation triggered a 70 percent increase in beta-endorphins in men, as measured in blood plasma levels (Mishra, R., Barlas, C. & Barone, D., 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.
  • Meditation has been found to modulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine (roughly a 65 percent increase) in limbic or emotional brain regions during the state of intense, internalized attention, which decreases the desire for action and executive control, heightens sensory awareness, and increases meditators’ ability to detach themselves from the past or future (Kjaer et al., 2002). Dopamine is involved in motivation, pleasure and reward, motor activity, attention regulation and the release of endorphins. Increased dopamine has also been found to occur when meditators were experiencing a sense of joy or bliss (Lou et al., 1999).
  • Long-term meditation has been found to have a lasting influence on adrenocortical activity (steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands) both during meditation and after; for example, by reducing stress hormones cortisol and ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) (Jevning, et al., 1978; Sudsuang, et al., 1991).
  • Several studies have found an increase in serum GABA (gamma-aminobutyricacid) during meditation, which enhances our sense of focus by limiting distracting external stimuli in the visual cortex and has a calming, anti-anxiety effect on the brain by regulating the activity of other key neurotransmitters associated with mental health (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine) (Elias, A.N., Wilson, A.F., 2000).
  • As meditation decreases respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, norepinephrine (the “fear” hormone) levels are decreased, which ultimately decreases hypothalamic stimulation and the production of stress-related hormones such as ACTH and cortisol (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003).
  • Meditation may increase glutamate levels. Chronic, long-term stress decreases glutamate receptors in the brain, which results in impaired memory (Eunice, Yuen et al, 2012). Glutamate is an excitatory transmitter that’s necessary for learning, memory and brain plasticity. During meditation, the meditator’s persistent focusing of attention increases activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region that controls executive functions such as attention, working memory and decision making. This increased PFC activity increases glutamate levels  (Hart, et al., 1995), enhancing memory, learning and brain plasticity.
  • Serotonin has been found to increase after meditation, and higher overall levels have been measured in long-term meditators (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Bujatti, 1976). In fact, several studies have shown that after meditation, the breakdown products of serotonin (5-HT) in urine is significantly increased, suggesting an overall serotonin elevation during meditation (Walton, et al, 1995; Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004b).

For an in-depth look at the brain’s biochemical response to stress, see: Are You Stressed? What Stress Really is and How to Know When it’s Dangerous.)

 

 

The Impact of Meditation on Common Stress-Related Illnesses

When we initially appraise an external event as challenging, harmful, or threatening, the physiological systems involved in our stress response kick in, along with the subjective experience of distress. We know that persistently overestimating the significance of negative events leads to excessive emotional reactivity and to the wear-and-tear of our bodily systems. The anti-stress effect of meditation has been demonstrated by typical physiological indicators of relaxation and stress relief, such as decreases in blood pressure, blood lactate and urinary vanillylmandelic acid (Newberg, Iverson, 2003; Chung et al, 2012), and these positive effects are particularly pronounced in regular, long-term meditators.

A 2012 2-week study of Sahaja meditation found that participants who received meditation treatment significantly improved both systolic (9.4 mm Hg decrease) and diastolic (12.32 mm Hg) blood pressure and better blood pressure control than controls who received conventional medical treatment. In fact, hypertensive participants in the control group actually showed no improvement in blood pressure after treatment.

In the U.S. alone, high blood pressure was the primary or contributing cause of 11.31 percent deaths in 2003 (Thom et al, 2006). Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke, and it’s been estimated that a population-wide 2-mm Hg reduction in diastolic blood pressure could prevent 6 percent risk of coronary heart disease and 15 percent risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (Cook, et al, 1995).

For hypertensive patients with type 2 diabetes, tight blood pressure control is even more important; it’s been estimated to reduce the risk of diabetes-associated death by 32 percent, the risk of stroke by 44 percent, and the risk of microvascular disease by 37 percent (U.K. Prospective Diabetes Study Group, 1998). Since controlling blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes often requires multiple drugs, Sahaja meditation may be an effective, no-cost intervention for hypertension.

A pair of studies suggest that Sahaja meditation can help. A large, randomized 2013 study of long-term Sahaja meditators found that Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on endothelial function, oxidative stress, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and heart rate variability (HRV) — all of which are influenced by poor stress management. 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).

Endothelial dysfunction, worsened by stress, is a key underlying cause of coronary artery disease. The endothelium, a thin layer of flat cells lining interior surfaces of the circulatory system (such as blood and lymphatic vessels and the heart), is responsible for maintaining circulation. One of the endothelium’s primary jobs is releasing nitric oxide, which signals the arteries to relax and dilate, providing healthy blood flow throughout the body. Oxidative stress deactivates nitric oxide, which contributes to endothelial dysfunction. Endothelial dysfunction, in turn, contributes to building blockages in arteries, which elevates the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

The results of the first study were corroborated in a second study of people with diabetes, many of who also had hypertension or other cardiac dysfunction. Researchers found that just 20 minutes per day of Sahaja meditation has an immediate and marked effect on HRV by switching off the “stress button.” Compared to the non-meditating diabetic group, the Sahaja  diabetic group showed: marked reductions in systolic blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol; increased levels of the vasodilator nitric oxide, which improved blood flow; marked reduction in bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides; significant improvement in good cholesterol (HDL) levels; and a  significant reduction in fasting blood glucose.

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Sahaja meditation enhances 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 be changed for the better.

People who practice Sahaja on an ongoing basis develop a built-in stress management mechanism. Experience refines our ability to assess our own stress levels, detect nervous system and energy center imbalances and perform the necessary meditation techniques for repairing and optimizing our cognitive and emotional functioning. Regular meditation constantly works to keep stress in check by keeping our mind-body systems — from our neurochemicals to our inner energy centers — nourished, balanced and revitalized.

Stress relief, in Sahaja meditation, could be thought of as the “gateway benefit.” It is a given, automatic, and the gateway to resolution of deeper mental and physical health issues. 

Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness has been found to evoke unique patterns of neurophysiological activity in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, heightened attentional skills, and enhanced brain plasticity (Aftanas, Golosheikin, 2003). The result is a more robust long-term mind-body resilience, a hardiness that equips us to weather whatever stressors may come our way.

 

References

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