It was less than a year after I took up transcendental meditation. I was going to Italy with a bunch of friends and had to catch a very early flight. As it happened, my flatmate and I didn’t check how frequently the tube runs at 5am and as a result we were running pretty late. I have never run so late for an airport.
But something was quite surprising. As I was standing at the platform waiting for a train that would take us to the airport barely twenty minutes before the gate was due to close, I was perfectly calm. It may have been because of the early rising and me being still half asleep but it was odd.
It was odd because throughout my life I used to be a stress junkie, getting cortisol rushes and anxiety because of absolutely everything. I used to be the queen of all worriers and the forecaster of worst-case scenarios, a product of a broken family who probably used to swim in a cortisol cocktail already in my mother’s womb.
But here I was, facing with a stoic calm the prospect of missing a flight.
What stress does to you – the evidence
A bit of stress is not a problem. We actually need it to challenge us and force us to grow and push our boundaries. But a chronic flight and flight state is a different story. And that’s exactly how I used to operate before taking up transcendental meditation.
Let’s have a look at some of the evidence out there showing what everything too much stress can do to you.
A study published in Biological Psychiatry last year looked at children of holocaust survivors born years after the parents left the concentration camps. The researchers were able to find specific changes in the children’s epigenome compared to a control group. Stress induced changes to the epigenome that can be transferred to future generations have previously been examined in animals but this was the first study looking at humans. Simply put, stress can turn on some genes that we would rather see staying asleep and these changes can be transmitted to our children causing them to manifest certain health problems. Children of traumatised parents have long been known to be more prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder for example and this study shows that they can be actually genetically pre-programmed for it due to their parents’ experience.
A recent study by Swedish researchers looked at the effect of chronically high levels of stress hormone cortisol on DNA methylation. Methylation is the process at the heart of epigenetics. A methylated gene is not expressed, meaning that you are not suffering from the problem related to this gene. Unmethylated gene is expressed, meaning you are suffering from the problem triggered by this gene – being it obesity, cancer or neurodegenerative disease.
This particular study looked at people suffering from Cushing’s syndrome where high amounts of cortisol are excreted into the system due to a benign tumour of the pituitary or adrenal gland.
All of the 48 participants in the study had a significantly lower level of DNA methylation than the control group.
We don’t need to talk about extreme stress. A study published earlier this year in the journal Preventive Medicine found correlations between prolonged exposure to work-related stress and the risk of developing lung, colon, rectal and stomach cancers and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to the researchers, the perceived stress was not limited to high workload and strict deadlines. Customer service, sales commissions, responsibilities, the participant’s anxious temperament, job insecurity, financial problems, challenging or dangerous work conditions, employee supervision, interpersonal conflict, and a difficult commute were all sources of stress listed by the participant.
Chronically high cortisol also accelerates ageing and constricts blood flow to the brain contributing to the development of dementia.
Stress and other hormones
Sarah Gottfried in her book The Hormone Cure brilliantly explains what happens if you are chronically stressed and how the out of whack cortisol affects levels of all the other important hormones since they are all made from the same pre-cursors. If you are in a constant flight-or-flight mode, your body is constantly making cortisol and it doesn’t have enough stuff to make the other things.
Sarah says that high cortisol is the primary cause of most other sorts of hormonal imbalances. I do believe that my own cortisol-fuelled childhood and teenage years massively contributed to my later problems with low progesterone and endometriosis and of course to my insomnia.
The problem is that if you are used to live in a high-stress environment, you may not even realise that you are constantly stressed because you are simply used to it. It’s your only reality. You know no other. And you carry those stress-creating patterns of thinking and reacting with you into your life even though there might be no external reason for being stressed. You just create stress because you are so used to it. It’s your default way of being. That’s certainly how it used to work with me.
I was lucky enough to realise I was not OK pretty early. I had a major existential crisis at 20 and developed severe insomnia at 22 while studying for the final exams for my bachelor’s degree.
I started doing yoga at that time and tried all sorts of yoga nidras and other guided meditations designed to help you sleep. I am not saying yoga does not help. It certainly does but it certainly did not solve my problems.
The lasting change for me came with transcendental meditation.
I have a theory why transcendental meditation works better than guided meditations. It guides you inside towards yourself while yoga nidras and other sorts of guided sleeping props are external attempts to silence what is keeping you awake or worrying you.
Transcendetal meditation helps you connect with yourself and essentially deal with the causes of your stress, which are on the inside and nowhere else. But it also has a powerful biochemical effect on the brain and body. You can feel it – a good meditation floods you with those feel good hormones. Sometimes it feels like being in love but the source of the experience comes from within.
I have no doubt other meditation practices have effects as well but for me transcendental worked the best, extremely fast and helped me to totally change the stress-creating ways of thinking and reacting that I have been dragging along with me since my childhood.
Today, I frequently surprise myself how calm I am (unless I am going through a stress-release episode but that is an entirely different story). I am also aware that I am actually choosing my responses to situations. I can choose whether to be stressed about most things or take them easy and if something stressful actually happens, I can let go of it much faster than in the past.
That trip to the airport actually did end with a short bout of cortisol madness after I was held at security because of the three cans of sardines in my hand luggage. I did catch that flight but the door into the aircraft virtually closed right behind my back.