Not long ago, I attended a very moving symposium on how transcendental meditation (TM) can help women recover from traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence. The following week, I found myself urging a friend to look into TM to ease the extreme anxiety she was feeling after being laid off from work. Granted, job loss doesn't sound as traumatic as assault—but there's no question that my friend was deeply troubled. Glad to be able to offer her concrete advice, I decided that this was a story I needed to report on now.
I hope you never find yourself in intense emotional distress…but few of us get through life without experiencing trauma of some sort, be it a frightening accident, worrisome illness or heart-breaking loss. The stories I heard at the symposium were truly wrenching—a female veteran who had been the victim of sexual assault by an officer…homeless teens who had lived as prostitutes on city streets…African villagers who had witnessed the brutal murders of family members. While nothing could erase what these women had suffered, each reported that TM had helped her regain control over her thoughts and feelings, restored peace of mind and allowed her to experience joy again. Amazingly, the improvement was almost immediate—some of the women said that they started to feel better the very first time they meditated!
What is TM? The popularity of TM surged back in the 1960s, when the Beatles embraced the technique. Now interest has been rekindled through the involvement of celebrities such as Oprah and director David Lynch.
Given its profound effects, you may be surprised to hear that TM is easy to learn and do. There's nothing mystical, religious or cultlike about the practice. TM is a straightforward technique involving silent repetition of a mantra, a particular sound with no meaning that serves as a vehicle to settle the mind into a profound state of restful alertness. Once mastered, TM ideally is practiced with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice per day.
How it works: Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, MD, author of Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation, told me that TM is among the most powerful “stress busters” he has encountered in his many years of psychiatric practice and confirmed that it is a useful tool for getting through painful times or recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reason: People who have experienced intense stress often have difficulty calming down because the body's alarm-signaling mechanism goes awry and the “fight or flight” response becomes their normal state of being. “Stress can be like an alarm bell that just keeps ringing. Transcendental meditation helps to settle down both the mind and body, so people become more resilient and less vulnerable to stress,” Dr. Rosenthal said.
Research has demonstrated that TM helps people to achieve equanimity because it literally changes their brain waves. TM promotes alpha brain waves, slow-frequency signals that are associated with calmness. There also is an increase in coherence, meaning that brain waves from different parts of the brain are more closely in step with one another. In other words, “TM spreads a great wave of calmness across the brain,” Dr. Rosenthal said. Brain scans have shown that this can happen the first time a person meditates…with regular practice, those changes become lasting and can be seen even at times when the person isn't meditating. Dr. Rosenthal added, “TM also may help by a process of systematic desensitization—allowing worrisome thoughts and feelings to emerge in the context of profound relaxation and transcendent joy, thereby weakening the neural links that were forged by the trauma.”
Who it helps: Just about everyone can benefit from TM, Dr. Rosenthal said, though the practice is particularly helpful for people who find that the emotional impact of a disturbing event or loss continues to reverberate long afterward. Such people may withdraw socially…experience disabling anxiety…and/or suffer from recurrent flashbacks or nightmares. “TM serves as a sort of 'surge protector' that helps these people handle the waves of intense internal stress that follow a traumatic experience,” he said.
I asked Dr. Rosenthal whether other forms of meditation would be equally effective. He said that they might also be helpful, yet mentioned two points that favor TM, in his opinion. First, approximately 340 peer-reviewed published studies have demonstrated TM's positive effects on various medical conditions, including PTSD, attention deficit disorder, depression, addiction and cardiovascular disease. Second, different forms of meditation (such as focusing on the breath or an image) affect other parts of the brain and affect people in different ways, which may or may not be as helpful in healing emotional pain.
To learn TM: For maximum effectiveness, TM is taught through personalized instruction tailored to each individual, as it has been for thousands of years. Just as you can't master playing piano or swinging a golf club by reading about it, you can't really learn TM from a book. You can find a certified TM teacher through the Maharishi Foundation USA (www.tm.org), a nonprofit educational organization. (Dr. Rosenthal receives no financial compensation from this or any other TM organization.)
The seven-step course begins with two free hour-long lectures that provide an intellectual understanding of the practice…plus a one-on-one interview with a certified teacher. Then, if you decide to proceed, you pay a flat fee for a two-hour private session, during which you receive your personal mantra (drawn from ancient Vedic tradition and chosen for you by your instructor) and are taught to use it…plus three 60- to 90-minute group sessions to fine-tune your technique. Thereafter, you can take unlimited refresher classes at any TM center in the US at no additional cost.
Tuition is $1,500 for an adult…$750 for a full-time student or for a spouse who learns along with his or her partner…or $375 for a child under age 18 who learns along with a parent. (Scholarships often are available for those with demonstrated financial need.) Pricey? Consider this—a study in American Journal of Health Promotion recently reported that people with consistently high health-care costs experienced a 28% cumulative reduction in physician fees after practicing TM for five years.
In my opinion, TM is well worth the cost. I've been practicing the technique for a year now. Though I was inspired more by curiosity rather than any particular trauma, I can honestly report a noticeable decrease in my stress level…greater joy in my everyday life…and a growing sense of inner peace.
Source: Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC. World-renowned for his pioneering research on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the use of light therapy to treat SAD, he also maintains a private practice in the DC metropolitan area. His newest book is Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation (Tarcher-Penguin). www.NormanRosenthal.com