Full disclosure. I’m not a person who likes to suppress my emotions, nor did I come from a family who did that. If we were mad about something, we got it all out on the table, for better or for worse.
Yet even so, I’ve done my fair share of keeping a tight lid on my feelings. When I was in my 20s and just starting my professional career as a teacher, I felt great anxiety as a role model for kids. I was so careful about what I said, what I allowed myself to feel. I started to get sore throats regularly, and my health declined. Thankfully, I grew into my role and learned how I could express myself and still be professional. But looking back, I always think of that time as a period when my health suffered because I was straining to cover my true feelings.
It turns out that suppressing our emotions can have far-reaching consequences for our health. “It’s like pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time, creating an internal pressure cooker,” writes Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression.
The word “emotion” comes in part from the Latin roots, ex “out’ and movere “to move.” Emotions want to move up and out from the body in expression, explains Hendel, and when we block them we put stress on the mind and body. This can show up as psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, and physiological symptoms, such as heart disease, stomach distress, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.
This is all-important news not only for women, who often report suppressing their emotions while on the job, for instance, but also for boys. Young boys may be taught to “suck it up” and “not be a girl” if they start to cry, for instance. And this can be a harmful habit.
Yet at the same time we all know that unleashing unbridled negative emotions has a big downside—anger, blame, fear, and other negative emotions can hurt the people you love and destroy relationships at home and at work. And if they become habit-forming, negative emotions cause their own destructive effect on your mind and body by releasing cascades of neurotoxins that also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So which is the better way to handle emotional stress? Is it better to make a habit of “telling someone off” or is it better to make a habit of holding it inside?
The answer is: neither one. Instead, we need to look at a completely different solution that allows us to express our emotions freely yet does not create negative consequences for ourselves or others. In other words, we need a way to prevent the stress from reaching the point where you need to lash out at someone in the first place.
For thousands of women, the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique does just that: it creates a surge-protector against stress, as Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation, explains. “Somebody rejects you, or someone says something nasty to you. And you worry, am I not respected? Am I losing status around here? Or is my job in danger? All these things—or whatever it is that you worry about—can cause anxiety. If you meditate regularly, as I found personally and with my patients, these things all seem more manageable.”
Taking a Time Out for Yourself Twice a Day
For me, practicing the TM technique is an adult’s version of taking a “time-out for myself,” which you schedule into your day, just 20 minutes when you wake up in the morning and 20 minutes late in the afternoon, before dinner. It has helped me with emotional stress in two ways.
First of all, by closing my eyes to meditate twice a day, it releases the tensions that may have built up during the day, including the emotional stressors. I may go into my meditation feeling hurt or angry about something someone said, and may be rehearsing all the ways I should have responded, but by the end of my meditation the stress is gone and afterwards I feel chill, calm. I can think more creatively, I can look deeper and find a solution that will help me feel better and address the other person’s needs at the same time. I don’t stuff the hurt or anger—it’s genuinely gone. And that leaves my heart free to feel empathy and my mind free to actually solve the problem in a way that benefits everyone.
To look at the research on how TM reduces stress, one study published in Hormones and Behavior shows that TM reduces cortisol, the stress hormone, by 30%. Other research published in the International Journal of Neuroscience reveals that TM helps calm an over-active amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the flight-or-fight response. When the amygdala is triggered, your defenses are on high alert. EEG evidence for those practicing Transcendental Meditation shows that the hyper-activity of the amygdala settles down during the practice. There are other significant findings: a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology shows that the TM technique is twice as effective in lowering trait anxiety than when compared with other self-development techniques.
So releasing mental and emotional stress during TM is a good thing, and certainly helps prevent the big emotional blow up.
Second, there’s an even more amazing result of practicing TM regularly over time. The deep rest chips away at those deep-rooted stresses that can ambush you whenever someone pushes your buttons. Over time, you can feel your baseline for stress changing—you’re just not as reactive as you were before. Things that used to annoy you roll off like water on a duck. Situations that used to hurt your feelings don’t have the same power over you. You laugh instead.
It’s kind of miraculous, really. With this one simple habit, you can clear away the stresses that give rise to negative emotions in the first place.
The Power of Positive Emotions
As stress levels go down, you’re likely to experience a surge in happiness. After all, it’s your nature to be deeply happy, deeply peaceful. In other words, you don’t have to create happiness, because it’s already your nature to be happy inside. You just need to clear away the stresses and strains that cover your own nature, which we do through the practice of TM.
To use an analogy, say a farmer discovers that his or her irrigation canal has been blocked by weeds and debris and spends a day clearing away the obstacles so the water can reach the crops. In this case, the farmer does not cause the water to flow—he or she merely removes the blocks and the water flows. In the same way, you merely have to settle down to a state of deep rest during the practice of Transcendental Meditation, and your body will naturally clear away deep-rooted stresses that block your own happiness. Once the clouds part, the sun shines.
There’s another way that TM bolsters happiness and other positive emotions—by balancing our hormones. According to Stuart Rothenberg, M.D., “TM practice has been shown to increase production of neurochemicals associated with happiness and fulfillment—including dopamine, serotonin, and gabaminobutyric acid (GABA). Increase in these neurotransmitters reduces autonomic arousal and anxiety, decreasing the need for drugs or alcohol.”
Seratonin has been called our “happiness hormone.” One study found that after 20 minutes of TM practice there was a 50% increase in the 5-HIAA serotonin metabolite. GABA is the anti-anxiety molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness. Research shows that the TM technique enhances the effects of the neuro-inhibitory neuron GABA, similar to the effects of endorphins in runners who report a “runner’s high.”
So when you practice the TM technique, you’re not suppressing your emotions—you’re rewiring your brain so you act from a baseline of happiness rather than a baseline of stress. And there’s no downside for that.
Establishing A Baseline of Happiness
I think we can all agree that expressing positive emotions has a positive effect on our friends, family and others around us. It can have an even more positive effect on our own health. New research published in the journal Emotion shows that experiencing a wide range of positive emotions may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Subjects who reported a wide range of positive emotions on a day-to-day basis had less inflammation than people who reported a smaller range—even if their overall frequencies of positive emotions were similar.
Other studies show a high correlation between longevity and happiness. For instance, in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), which involved 10,000 British people aged 50 years and older, the unhappiest people were three times more likely to die during the test period of nine years than the happiest one-third.
But we can take the definition of happiness a step further. When we practice TM, we’re experiencing a field of transcendental consciousness that connects us to everyone we meet, to every person on earth. We experience this as a deep source of happiness that is vast and all-pervading. That is our true self, the most peaceful and expansive view of our self. In that field of unity that underlies all of creation, we have a perfect relationship and connection with every other thing. In physics, this unified field is described as a field of infinite correlation. This is the ultimate togetherness, of connectedness, of community—an experience of holding everyone and everything in creation as dear as one’s own self.
And when we contact that field of transcendental consciousness on a daily basis through our practice of TM, the field of infinite happiness and bliss we experience is expressed in improved social relationships, better self-esteem, more positive emotions, more success and achievement day-by-day, as shown in research studies.
“Therefore, the technique of making all actions joyful is to bring joy to the mind,” said Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique. “Fill the mind with that great happiness which knows no end, let the mind be saturated with absolute bliss, and then the undertaking of any action, whatever it may be, will be performed in all joyfulness.”
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.