An Interview with Dr. Ross
For the Frazzled Masses, Cheap and Easy Stress Relief
By Debra Melani
Originally published at GetBoulder.com.
Healthy Living Fall 2011
Whether it was from the heat of the fluorescent lights or the stifling air of the crowded classroom, Nicole Stephan always noticed that uncomfortable warm feeling first. Then the pounding heart would start, the sound of the speeding beat reverberating in her ears. Soon, her body’s response would launch her anxious thoughts into a shooting spree, bouncing around in her brain like well-played pinballs.
That’s how the graduate student’s class presentations would always begin. But then Stephan, 35, learned how to quiet her thoughts through mindfulness and meditation. Spending as little as 20 minutes at least three days a week silently focusing, Stephan says she has finally slain her two life-altering dragons: stress and anxiety. From Hollywood heavies to healthcare workers and college students, a growing number of Americans are jumping on the meditation cushion.
“Just in the last four or five years, the word meditation has really gone mainstream,” says Bob Roth, vice president of the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes transcendental meditation. Roth, who has practiced TM for 40 years and says more than 5 million people have been trained in the technique, credits the widespread practice of yoga, in part, for meditation’s proliferation. “But the other big factor is that stress has gotten so bad,” Roth says. He teaches meditation to everyone from corporate leaders to inner-city schoolchildren.
The American Psychological Association found that money, work and the economy were the top three causes of stress among U.S. workers between 2007 and 2010, and other surveys indicate the stresses of down economic times are taking their toll on Americans’ health. At the same time, studies on the positive effects of meditation for stress continue to pour out, luring the frazzled masses toward one of the many different forms of the ancient practice for relief.
Mediation changes the brain
At least five major studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have shown the benefits of TM on reducing stress and high blood pressure—studies touted by the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association. With the NIH pumping $26 million into research on this type of meditation alone in the past 20 years, the notion that there’s something to meditation is clearly taking root.
“What’s really exciting is the idea of neuroplasticity,” says Justin Ross, a psychologist with MindBodyHealth in Denver, referring to recent findings that the brains of longtime meditators are different from those of nonmeditators. “It means our brains are very capable of reforming and shifting when we begin mindfulness practices.” While research headlines bring people through his doors, Ross says, it’s the fact that the technique works that keeps them meditating.
Stephan, who tried other remedies for anxiety that intensified after a serious car accident, was surprised to find that the peace-seeking exercise worked. “In the past, I would have this thought: ‘Oh my God, something is wrong. I’m not going to be able to talk,’” says Stephan, using her bad presentation experiences as an example. Now, calling on her new mindfulness techniques, the Longmont resident has learned to slow her racing thoughts, focus on the present, and identify her body’s reactions for what they are: the fight-or-flight response.
The natural human reaction is meant for acute stressful episodes, to aid in dealing with dangerous situations. “But for people today, it’s continually kicking in for perceived threats, like ‘The boss is coming, and I’m going to lose my job,’” says Janet Solyntjes, who teaches “Mindfulness for Stress Reduction” at Boulder’s Center for Courageous Living and was Stephan’s instructor. An incessant high-alert state is damaging to the body, she says.
Although different types of meditation have varied techniques and goals, all work to calm the mind, which calms the body. “With meditation, we are reducing that physiological arousal,” Ross says. “We’re reducing heart rate, reducing muscle tension, calming breathing, all of which can reduce production of cortisol,” a damaging stress-related hormone.
“The beautiful thing is that meditation is very easy to practice, it’s cost-effective, and anyone can benefit,” Ross continues, noting a growing interest among his CU Hospital colleagues. Meditation offers a valuable tool to doctors and other healthcare professionals who work long, hard hours at such a critical job, he says. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that mindfulness meditation reduced these providers’ workload stress and led to better treatment of patients.
Colleges should be a target for meditation groups and instruction, Roth asserts, as students are one of the most stressed populations in society. He notes one study at American University in Washington, D.C., that followed 300 students—some trained in TM, others placed in a control group—and found reduced anxiety, stress, insomnia and drug abuse in the meditative group.
CU-Boulder began offering a meditation group for students, faculty and staff in January, a move Stephan would applaud. As a CU graduate student focusing on information and communication technologies for developing countries, she knows the stress of academic life. Expectations are high and demands are great, she says. “And as a graduate student, there’s more riding on your performance.”
Juggling full-time school and a growing business, Stephan taps into her mindfulness techniques almost daily. She recently put her training to a tough test by attending a six-week intensive course in Nepali at Cornell University. “I used my meditation techniques a lot. It really did help calm my mind and keep me focused.”
Choosing a road to tranquility
Especially in Boulder, the options for learning meditation are vast, but take time to consider which form of meditation to practice (some have a spiritual basis; some do not) and your preferred mode of learning. Stephan scoured the Boulder Book Store before choosing mindfulness-based meditation. Prices range from free, to $300 for Solyntjes’ class, to $1,500 for TM (Roth says scholarships are available, and the price tag includes a coach for life).
Meditation-related sites are also popping up on the Internet. Ross, who doesn’t recommend cyberspace learning, says those who do surf the Web for meditation tutorials and resources should make sure the sites belong to credible professionals who aren’t making cure-all claims. Although Solyntjes agrees face-to-face instruction is best, she’s open to people getting started online. “You might as well use this wonderful technology we have, but it’s not going to sustain you on your path.” For that, she suggests fellow-human support, which she recommends for her own students once they complete her once-a-week-for-eight-weeks class. “The biggest loss is that at the end of eight weeks, you lose that community. You had this way to share wisdom and share questions.” But in Boulder, she says, there are lots of free-group options.
Once people learn the basics of meditation, they gain a valuable resource for life, something that can make a difference in as little as 10 minutes a day. “Find what’s doable for you,” Solyntjes says. “Be able to stick to your commitment, and know your goals. You are not going to become enlightened doing 10 minutes a day, but it certainly will affect you.”
Debra Melani is a freelance health writer who lives in the meditative surroundings of Lyons.