Vedic Meditation as a Tool for Coping with Chronic Stress and Anxiety
The endless demands and tasks we go through every single day inevitably leave us feeling a little depleted and stressed. In our Western world, it’s far more normal to feel stressed, overwhelmed, busy, and distracted than peaceful, present, and happy. These demands can affect our stress physiology.
Meditation has become a popular and proven tool to address stress since the 1980s. But can it really heal our stress and anxiety, or does it merely help us cope with them?
Vedic Meditation promises a unique and seemingly impossible outcome: to remove the stress from the body so that we no longer respond with anxiety or overwhelm and are instead present and adaptable all the time.
In this post, we’ll cover what stress is, where it comes from, and how Vedic Meditation uniquely transforms the mind and body over time to build more and more natural stress resilience.
What is Stress?
When something happens (or doesn’t happen) the way we expected it to, the change in expectation leads to stress. Stress was first coined as a term and defined in 1936 by a researcher named Hans Selye. His research defined three stages that became known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) in the 1950s.
The Three Stages of a Stress Response¹
The first stage of a stress response is the alarm reaction stage, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In this stage, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, releasing hormones that provide more adrenaline and an increased heart rate, breathing rate, and increased blood pressure.
You can feel this phase starting when there is a change in your environment, and you realize you’ll need to respond differently than you naturally would (or differently than you’d planned).
The second stage of a stress response is the resistance stage. This stage signifies that the change in expectation didn’t ever ‘sort out,’ and your body never received a clear directive to return to the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state that is the normal status quo. In this stage, the stressed person may begin experiencing symptoms and changes in mood.
The third stage of a stress response happens when the body is exhausted from chronic stress. We know this stage as burnout, and it leads to a breakdown in the ability to cope with continual stress all the time. In this stage, resilience is very low and illness can arise. Mental health disorders can appear and the body tends to be very fatigued all the time.
The Vedic Definition of Stress
In the Vedic Worldview, we call any change in expectation a stress response. This can be a positive change, a negative change, or even a neutral change. But when you are naturally going about your day one way, and there is something blocking or compelling you to respond in a different way, you are forced to adapt. That adaptation puts additional demands on your nervous system.
For example, if you had planned to go on a walk with a friend who’s in town to catch up, but it turns out it’s raining, you have to change plans. Even if the situation doesn’t feel stressful, it still increases the demands on your creativity to come up with a new plan and communicate with your friend. Even if it all works out and you meet at a nearby coffee shop, the change in expectation still requires additional resources and adaptability from you.
No Stressful Situations – All Response (In Consciousness)
The other element of the Vedic perspective on stress and adaptation energy is that the way we perceive change in our expectations aligns perfectly with our level of consciousness. In this perspective, there is no stress coming from the outside into the inner world.
Professor Selye showed in his research that our bodies automatically generate stress responses to good and bad kinds of stress, in order to protect us from danger. He posited that there are no such things as stressful situations, there are only stressful reactions.
If there are no inherently stressful situations, then could it be possible to not experience stress responses any longer? To some degree, no, because we cannot turn off the autonomic nervous system that responds to stimuli. But to a very great degree, we can change how much stress we experience from any change in expectation by slowly transforming our stress physiology.
Our Extreme Sensitivity to Stress
It is very common these days to see people break down or have very strong reactions to the smallest change in expectation, like running into traffic or having someone cut in line. Though these people might not be in the exhaustion stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome, they will still show habits of reacting very negatively or experiencing all kinds of chronic symptoms both physically and mentally/emotionally.
The reason for this is that our high-stimulus environment triggers a stress response at a low level constantly so we are accumulating stress at a much higher rate than we can address or clear it out. It might not feel so bad to notice you’re late to a meeting at the moment, but hundreds of thousands of those moments accumulated over your whole lifetime build up a significant backlog of stress and low-grade fight-or-flight response.
The more we accumulate memories of stressful situations and habits of responding with fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, depression, or any other maladaptive responses, our ability to cope with stress changes. Our threshold for what makes us feel stressed or anxious gets lower and lower, so it takes barely a featherweight of stress to put us over the edge into a full-blown stress reaction.
The Mind and Body Under Constant Stress
In our over-stimulated and consistently stressed society, we hear about mental health and burnout issues regularly and even experience them creep up on us when our life ‘doesn’t seem that stressful.’
The body responds in very specific ways to stress and anxiety to conserve energy and focus on survival, and much of the population deals with this reduced capacity all the time.
Digestion slows, creative and innovative thinking becomes foggy, peripheral vision narrows and our bodies become more acidic (which is a breeding ground for pathogens). The immune system becomes less efficient and we tend to see everything as a threat out to get us.
Our personalities can fall back into our coping patterns, whether that is aggression, passivity, anxiety, isolation, or any other maladaptive behavior. Our true essence doesn’t have the chance to shine as our bodies try to keep us alive all the time, with no signal that it’s safe to rest and return to homeostasis.
This is why stress management and resiliency training is so important. Stress and anxiety color our experience of life and how we show up in the world.
Premature Cognitive Commitments
Premature cognitive commitments are sensory memories associated with moments of stress. These commitments represent information related to each occurrence of stress, creating a repository of associations with the elements present during those stressful moments.
For example, if you experienced a painful injury while playing soccer, all the sensory memories surrounding that experience would be logged away in your body as signals of danger.
The smell of grass, the color of your team’s jerseys, and especially everything about the ambulance you rode to the hospital. The sounds, the bright white light, even the feel of rolling on a stretcher. Anytime in the future that you see an ambulance or smell mud, your body will respond in minute ways as if something dangerous were about to occur.
A team of scientists, led by the Nobel Prize laureate Sir John Eccles, conducted research that suggested that by the age of 20, the typical individual from Western societies might have accumulated a staggering 100,000 premature cognitive commitments. To put it in perspective, this translates to 100,000 distinct pieces of information, any one of which, if encountered—be it a specific color, a particular piece of music, or a familiar scent—can trigger a rapid onset of stress reactivity.
This huge mass of stressful memories begins to take over our thoughts and actions. It can change how we respond to the world and warp our personalities. Rather than being free to make choices and be present in our experiences, these stress triggers dominate the conscious and subconscious mind. Even if we want to be aware of our stress and resilience and manage it in a mature way, we’ll still be subconsciously affected beyond our ability to control or perceive it.
The Outcome of Continual Stress Accumulation
According to the Vedic Worldview, anxiety signals an imbalance in the body that is initially caused by stress accumulation. Where one person may express their stress and stress accumulation as anger, another person’s default response to stress may be depression. For someone who is prone to respond to stress with anxiety, any kind of stress trigger could result in panic, worry, or tension.
The American Psychological Association describes anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension and worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure2.
The buildup of stress over time – whether emotional, psychological, or even physical – can create neural pathways in the brain habituating worry and anxious stress responses.
Chronic anxiety plagues an unusually high percentage of our society. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Over 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder,²” while “31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives³.
The Vedic View on Anxious Thoughts
The Vedic Worldview posits that the mind creates thought forms to ‘think’ itself toward happiness. In other words, the mind attempts to get to a happier place or create a happier outcome by thinking.
If the mind can think of a way to solve all the problems or figure out the source of the negative feelings, it can ‘think’ to a happier, more stable place.
This means that for the anxious person, their 60,000 to 100,000 daily thoughts are spent rehashing the past or future, to try to think their way toward more happiness and less stress.
Can Meditation Make Stress and Anxiety Worse?
In this case, as in many cases of people in the resistance and exhaustion stages of a stress response, meditations that require them to ‘stop thinking’ or ‘clear the mind and quiet the thoughts’ are actually more stressful.
For someone dealing with severe mental health challenges or obsessive thoughts, taking on a meditation style that requires concentration may only make them feel worried about ‘not thinking’ or ‘meditating incorrectly.’
There are many kinds of meditation, however, and meditation has been proven to improve stress and anxiety nearly to the level of prescription medications.
In a recent study⁴, 200 participants were introduced to a popular mindfulness meditation program and meditated for 45 minutes a day. Within two months of regular practice, the levels of stress reported by the participants decreased the same amount as the control group, who were given a generic form of a popular anxiety medication Lexapro.
“Anxiety as measured on a severity scale declined by about 30% in both groups and continued to decrease during the following four months.”
It is important to note that anyone experiencing chronic mental, emotional, or physical symptoms of stress seek professional help. Meditation can be a very supportive tool alongside the doctor’s recommendations, and we always want to tend to our needs with the resources best suited to help us heal.
The Best Meditations for Stress and Anxiety
The unique thing about Vedic Meditation is that thoughts are allowed during each meditation. This makes the meditation process effortless, which is a novel experience for a stressed mind.
The stressed mind wants to control, predict, and avoid its circumstances. When the mind is stressed or anxious, allowing thoughts and mantras to flow easily and innocently can lead to a completely different state. This state is far from the usual high-pressure, fight-or-flight feeling.
Stressful Feelings vs Embedded Stress (COPING vs CLEARING)
An important distinction here is that the sensation of fear, worry, or stress is a separate phenomenon from stress physiology or physiological stress triggers. All kinds of activities can help the sensations dissipate, though the trigger remains intact. Training the mind to choose to respond differently can even prevent the sensations from happening, but that technique depends on willpower and does not necessarily remove the stress memory in the body.
For example, a person could have a lovely weekend of spa days, deep sleep, massages, and therapy, feeling spectacular and resilient by the end of the weekend. But if in the next week, the person sees the same red Ford pickup truck that their ex-spouse drove, they will still think of them and may even feel the associated unpleasant emotions.
With Vedic Meditation, over time the very association with the red pickup truck will disappear from the mind and physiology, so the person is free from both the emotions and the cause of those emotions or worries.
Though there are important and helpful methods to feel less anxiety in the moment of a stress trigger, they may not necessarily unwind the root cause of the anxiety–the physiologically stored stress memory.
Vedic Meditation can help to resolve the root cause of the problem alongside other therapies that soothe emotions and stabilize mental health. Vedic Meditation offers a sustainable and holistic way to address anxiety alongside other therapies that each individual finds helpful. As the body releases the stressors, the symptomatic anxiety can resolve itself.
Coping vs Effortless Happiness
We don’t want to just cope with a physiology riddled with stressful memories and a continual fight-or-flight state that colors our experience of life.
To be able to be effortlessly present, we need to clear the stress memories entirely. As we do so, the mind will not have to ‘think’ its way to a happier place and will be able to be more present.
As we are able to be more present, we can actually enjoy our days without all the stories and reactions in the background. Our natural state of calm and happiness will shine through far more easily.
When we sit down to meditate each day, we’re releasing portions of those 100,000 embedded stress memories from our bodies. The more we release, the more resilience we have. In the Vedic Worldview, we call that resilience in our adaptation energy.
The more adaptation energy we have, the easier it is to respond to changes in expectation without any reactions and minimal additional stress. We aren’t ‘close to the breaking point’ anymore, so even in high-pressure situations, we can be creative, present, and adapt quickly as needed.
People who have built a large reservoir of adaptation energy tend to stay calm in crises, not be too serious, and seem very present.
The Bija Mantra and Stress Release
The way Vedic Meditation builds adaptation energy is through a special Sanskrit mantra called a Bija Mantra.
The Bija Mantra is a meaningless sound, assigned by a qualified instructor to a student during an in-person Learn to Meditate course. Each person receives a mantra uniquely suited to their physiology and stage of life, to effortlessly charm the mind beyond thought.
The mantra comes up alongside and in between thoughts in meditation. Thoughts are allowed, and they represent those embedded stress memories leaving the body.
Over the twenty-minute session, the thoughts will get quieter as the mind wants to follow the charming sound of the Bija Mantra to subtler and subtler states of awareness. Eventually, the mind transcends thought entirely to experience Being or Universal Intelligence, which is the place beyond thought where the individual consciousness touches the greater consciousness.
This process not only removes stress progressively in each meditation, but it also begins to transform our perspective to be less narrow and more relaxed and open.
Why 20 Minutes Twice a Day?
Vedic Meditators sit for twenty minutes twice a day to clear out the stress of the current day, and then to work on clearing some of the embedded stress memories from farther back in life. The time is like a routine of personal care ‘you time’ in the morning and in the afternoon, where the meditator can go inward, unstress, and re-center before approaching the next chapter of their day.
A Meditator’s Story of Less Stress
One of Susan’s students, William Minhinett, shares his experience with Vedic Meditation and reducing his stress:
“There never seemed to be a way out. It always seemed to get worse. Uh, even though things would calm down in the back of my mind, it was always there. So there was never any time of no stress.
“You dream about it, you’d wake up with it. It was always kind of ticking off in your head as the day went on.
“Before my meditation practice, I didn’t have an idea of what an outlet would be. I just thought it was something you lived with and you dealt with it.
“Until I discovered meditation and learned what I did with Susan, I was never able to turn it off. And, since then, I’ve been able to do that. It’s helped me out tremendously. It’s something that I look forward to, and my head’s a lot clearer.
“Right after that first day, I could tell the difference. I could feel my heart slow down. I could feel my shoulders relax and I thought, wow, this is really something. And it has gotten better ever since.
“I’d recommend the course to relieve that stress in your life and to live a more relaxed and fulfilled life.”
“Right after that first day, I could tell the difference. I could feel my heart slow down. I could feel my shoulders relax and I thought, wow, this is really something. And it has gotten better ever since. I’d recommend the course to relieve that stress in your life and to live a more relaxed and fulfilled life.”– William Minhinett
Understand What is the Purpose of Meditation and Learn to Meditate
Take the Learn to Meditate Course with Susan Chen to begin unwinding the deeply rooted stressors that keep you out of the present moment. Over time, you’ll notice your body returning more and more quickly to its natural ‘rest and digest’ state, able to be resilient and adapt to any changes in expectation as they appear.
- How the Body Reacts to Stress. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/general-adaptation-syndrome-overview-5198270#:~:text=Summary,physical%20and%20mental%20health%20problems
- Anxiety, APA https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety
- Any Anxiety Disorder, NIMH https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Escitalopram for the Treatment of Adults With Anxiety Disorders. Jama Network. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2798510