Handling Stress — The Maharishi Ayurveda View
By Mark Toomey, Ph.D., Director of Ayurvedic Programs The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa
This decade has brought neuroimaging research, which has started to show us how the structure, neurochemistry, and function of the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus change over time as these brain areas respond to certain kinds of stress. With this new means of viewing the brain, researchers are now speculating that some stress activates brain regions that support intense emotions, and de-activates the central nervous system (CNS) regions in other ways.
These latter areas are parts of the brain involved in (a) the integration of sensory input with motor output; (b) the modulation of physiological arousal; and (c) the capacity to communicate experience in words. The erosion of attention and memory that results from some kinds of stress interferes with your capacity to engage in the present. If your level of stress is too great, you can seem to lose your way in the world.
One of the main results of severe stress is the weakening of the brain's ability to distinguish between dangerous and safe situations. These neurobiological changes suggest that the problems experienced by people under severe stress are not just figments of the imagination, but very real neurobiological consequences of traumatic stress. The inappropriate and long-lasting fear observed in people with high levels of stress suggests that these people are unable to inhibit or extinguish these fear responses. They may also have trouble sleeping and experience irritability and hyper-vigilance.
In ayurveda, one of the main causes of imbalances in the body and mind is "Asatmya Indrya Artha samyoga," which in Sanskrit means the unwholesome contact between the senses and their objects. A second set of causes as understood by ayurveda is Ati, Heen and Mitya, or the overuse, underuse and wrong use of the senses. In relation to severe stress, Ati is of importance. Ati means the excessive absorption of the senses in the surface value of objects. It is said that the individual is "overshadowed by the sensory experience." Processes of perception, feeling, thought and decision involve the reception, transformation and abstraction of environmental information interacting with memory from past experiences and the individual's present activity and goals. According to psychology, our image of our actual self is formed continuously by this influence of environmental feedback, and we classify ourselves according to this feedback. This is what is called "object-referral," referring to outside our self for knowledge as opposed to "self referral," where the reference point for knowledge is based on the experience of our Atma or inner intelligence.
This has important consequences for the physiology, as an individual's perception has an important influence on health outcomes. According to neuroscience, it is experience that shapes the brain and the nervous system, and what we experience depends on the state of our nervous system. From birth, our nervous system begins to be shaped; much of our early development is time-dependent.
It is the nature of our brains to participate in the external world. The discovery of mirror neurons over the last few years has allowed us to understand how an individual can be overwhelmed by emotion and experience. Mirror neurons seem to be neural mechanisms to explain the ability of humans to take on the emotions of those they perceive around them. When the environment is challenging and heightened with fear, then humans may have trouble emotionally separating their self from the experience.
Recent evidence has suggested that chronic stress damages the hippocampus. This has consequences for perception, because the hippocampus plays a key role in both spatial and declarative memory. The research indicates that the actions of stress hormones on the hippocampus in times of acute stress help to encode long-term memory in terms of our experiences for future reference, and this would be important for survival. However, in excessive and chronic stress, where stress hormones flood the system continually, the mechanism in the brain that turns them off can be damaged.
This process can be reversed by restoring allostasis. Allostasis is the mechanism of the body that maintains homeostasis, as opposed to a state of allostatic load which is the overload of these balancing mechanisms. The processes of plasticity, through which the brain reconfigures itself in response to stimuli from the outside world, and neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons in the mature brain, depend on the amount of stress being perceived in one's life. It is believed that, in response to stress, the brain puts both plasticity and neurogenesis on hold as a protective mechanism, and this explains the hippocampal shrinkage observed by many researchers.
The brain is the center for interpreting and integrating perception, and an individual will experience that perception as being stressful or not. Because perception of stress changes the physiology, that perception in turn will influence physiologic and behavioral responses. Those responses will lead to either allostasis (mechanisms to maintain homeostasis) and adaptation or allostatic load (such as the effects of chronic stress). Accumulative effects of allostatic load may result in overexposure to neural, endocrine and immune stress mediators, which may have adverse effects on various organ systems resulting in problematical health consequences.
The difference between a correct choice or a wrong choice or perception of the world is a matter of organization within our neural networks. What is primary is that those neural networks are organized through the experience of our inner awareness, our atma or pure consciousness, as well as from the information being brought in from the daily experience of living. Balance is between the inner silence and the outer dynamism. This is important to understanding why it is possible for some to have poor reactions to stress while others don't. Ayurveda says that to avoid Ati one must use yoga. This refers not to the popular exercises but to "union"-union of the conscious thinking mind with the subtlest aspect of the mind or Atma, pure consciousness. When one has the full range of experience from the most subtle to the gross in their field of awareness, then the perception is not overshadowed by Ati (the overuse of the senses). It is said that when the senses are overshadowed by Ati, then only through "Param Dhrishtva," having seen the transcendental nature of one's self, does experience become properly metabolized. The individual becomes self-referral as opposed to being object-referral.
The Sanskrit word for health is Swastha, which comes from "Swa" (the self) and "stha" (to establish), and health is understood as one established in the self. The self in this case is our own state of pure consciousness. In terms of Ati, it's as if the rider has surrendered control to the horse, to get where he wants to go. As the saying goes, the horse has "free rein."
The Sanskrit word for mind is manas, but is also known by the synonym sattva. In this context sattva for mind means that the mind's underlying essential nature is purity-pure self-referral intelligence in action. There are two doshas for the mind; they are known as rajas and tamas. The word dosha means impurity, so this implies that rajas and tamas can have a covering effect on the essential nature of the mind.
Rajasic qualities are said to be experienced as anger, jealousy, spitefulness and negativity. Tamasic qualities are dullness, inertia, fatigue and depression.
The quality of knowledge depends, then, on the purity or sattva of the mind and the clarity of our memory (smriti). For instance, if one is constantly under stress or reliving stressful events from the past, then one is always sending the wrong signals to the physiology and the results for health can be devastating. However, if one is transforming what they see through a calm, sattvic mind, then the effect on the physiology will be health-promoting.
This means that the physiology and the self-referral mechanisms that maintain homeostasis will operate more efficiently when one becomes in tune with the level of reality of our Atma, or pure consciousness, which is a self-referral structure. The research on the Transcendental Meditation® program indicates a more balanced functioning of mind and body is taking place in those who practice the technique.
In a study on Vietnam war veterans at the Denver Vietnam Veterans Outreach Program in 1981, the study's authors proposed that previous studies of Transcendental Meditation®, a well-researched meditation technique that is an important modality of Maharishi Ayurveda, had demonstrated benefits in reducing stress; therefore many of the symptoms of post-Vietnam veterans should improve. In their study, 28 veterans were randomized between two groups, one of which received normal psychotherapy and the other, the TM program. Eight in the psychotherapy group completed the study, as did 10 in the Transcendental Meditation® group. After three months, improvements in the TM group were seen on measurements for delayed stress syndrome, anxiety, depression, insomnia, alcohol use, family problems, employment status and GSR habituation to a stressful stimulus. In contrast, no similar changes were observed in the comparison psychotherapy group. The Transcendental Meditation® program is a practical option for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that results in a person re-experiencing phenomena through recurrent distressing thoughts, nightmares, and avoidance in dealing with the event physically and emotionally; experiencing detachment and estrangement; sleep disturbance; increased irritability and hyper-vigilance. TM has been investigated in over 600 studies of different kinds, carried out at over 100 research institutions in 30 countries. Modern neuroscience considers decreased brain wave coherence to be indicative of decreased integration and effectiveness of brain function. Researchers suggest that TM's systematic increase of coherence may play a role in restoring normal brain function after damage caused by trauma and unresolved after-effects. More recently, Dr. Norman Rosenthal and colleagues conducted a small pilot study on American veterans from the Iraq war who learned Transcendental Meditation®. After two months all responded favorably on standardized rating scales that measure the effects of trauma.
There is a conundrum that sometimes baffles researchers: under traumatic stress many people do not end up with any serious health consequences. It is estimated that 75% of the US population will experience a severe traumatic event, but only about 8% will develop problems. Ayurveda may help explain this.
In ayurveda the identification of Prakriti, the nature on the individual, is important. This is the combination of the doshas Vata, Pitta and Kapha that make up the individual. Prakriti is like the biological understanding of phenotype and genotype. Just as we are born with a genetic blueprint that gives us our physical features and then later through our life course expresses those genes as who we currently are, so the doshas help us understand more fundamentally what happens to our physiology at birth and later through our life course. But, of course, understanding doshas is much easier. People who are more Vata tend to be more responsive to stress. Pitta may be resistant for a while, but usually, because of their sharp nature, they are likely to be the leaders and have more stress put upon them. Kapha are usually most resistant to stress. This is in general, and it depends also on the various combinations of doshas that make up the individual. In terms of the imbalanced doshas, Vata is most likely to be the main imbalance and is more associated with symptoms such as hyperarousal, insomnia, anxiety and recurring memories. Pitta is associated more with anger and emotional outbursts, and Kapha more with depressive symptoms. When one can identify the nature of the individual, it is easy to support balance with individualized dietary, lifestyle and herbal programs.
Along with the Transcendental Meditation® program, Maharishi Ayurveda herbs can also be a part of a holistic program to help with the effects of general stress. The following paragraphs are a discussion of traditional uses of ayurvedic herbs to address general stress as a part of a complete system of natural healthcare. The herbs mentioned are botanical formulations that have been used traditionally for centuries to support healthy states of mind and body, relative to stressful life experiences. Ayurveda has a rich tradition of wide-ranging herbal formulations that support the full use of mental potential.
The tradition recognizes an abundance of Sattvic herbs called Medhya Rasayanas. These herbs are especially great for promoting a clear mind and good memory. Shankhapushpi or Aloeweed, the authentic Brahmi or Herpestis monniera, and Indian Pennywort or Centella asiatica, also known as Gotu Kola, are some well-known ayurvedic herbs known to promote the health and functioning of the mind and memory. Aloeweed, for example, enhances memory and problem-solving ability even under situations of day-to-day stress. Gotu Kola is said to be not only useful for the mind but good for promoting youthfulness. Synergistic formulas that contain not only these herbs but other supporting and balancing adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha (Winter Cherry) help boost resistance to stress and are excellent for people who work in demanding jobs.
Intelligence Plus has been shown in research to increase intelligence in children. It is useful for anyone of any age who has to learn new information. Mind Plus supports problem-solving ability, and is available in syrup form for faster assimilation. Youthful Mind for the aging brain helps promote flexible thinking. Blissful Sleep is great for the busy mind and will allow you to fall asleep quickly, and Deep Rest provides support if you tend to wake between 2 AM and 4 AM.
Blissful Joy is excellent nutritional support for emotional balance. Blissful Joy helps balance three subdoshas: Tarpaka Kapha, Prana Vata and Sadhaka Pitta. Tarpaka Kapha governs fluid balance in the brain, healthy brain tissue, and communication between brain cells. When in balance, it contributes to a stable personality. Prana Vata, which governs energy, creativity, perception, growth of consciousness and self-realization, is also nourished by Blissful Joy. Finally, Blissful Joy supports Sadhaka Pitta, which is responsible for balanced emotions, self-confidence, healthy desires, motivation and a feeling of fulfillment.
Blissful Joy also supports a healthy metabolism and helps clear away toxins from the microcirculatory channels (srotas) that deliver nutrients to the cells. Blocked srotas deprive the cells of energy and vitality and slow down cell regeneration. When your body has more old cells than new ones, fatigue and feelings of sadness can result. Blissful Joy promotes healthy metabolism and helps revitalize cell growth.
One of the herbs included in Blissful Joy is Arjuna Myrobalans, known to support the heart and emotions. Ashwagandha and Holy Basil assist the body's natural resistance to stressful situations. Ashwagandha is also effective in balancing Prana Vata and promoting emotional stability. Finally, Ailanthus Excelsa and Arjuna Myrobalans help strengthen the body's natural rejuvenative mechanisms, hastening the replacement of dead or weak cells with fresh, vital ones.
Stress Free Mind supports natural resistance to daily mental stress and fatigue. This blend of whole herbal extracts, powders, and minerals nourishes and supports the immune system which is often taxed by everyday mental stress. Bacopa, Dwarf Morning Glory, Gotu Kola and Indian Tinospora in the Stress Free Mind formula work to support learning, retention and long-term memory. Pearl, Greater Galangal, Licorice, Jatamansi and Ashwagandha aid overall mental energy, and the synergy of all herbs and minerals in the formula supports mental resistance to stress.
Worry Free helps with the challenge of modern life. It simultaneously calms the nervous system while supporting mental clarity. It helps support a healthy emotional response which is vital for your health and peace of mind. In a published research study, individuals diagnosed with general anxiety disorder were randomly assigned to receive either Worry Free or a placebo. After three months, those taking Worry Free showed significantly reduced general anxiety (trait anxiety), reduced anxiety in response to a challenging situation (public speech), and reduction in salivary cortisol (cortisol increases during stress).
My Vedic Kitchen
Seven Tips for Staying Cool
- Enjoy cooling, non-carbonated summer beverages.
- Eat a Pitta-pacifying diet - more of the sweet, bitter and astringent tastes, and less of the sour, salty and pungent tastes.
- Choose "cooling" exercise - swimming; water-based sports; ice-skating; evening strolls. A moonlight walk is especially soothing for Pitta-ruffled emotions.
- Chill - no overworking; avoid deadline-oriented activities; balance work with leisure; take time to enjoy life.
- Protect yourself from the sun.
- Look for rose-containing products to benefit from their cooling qualities.
- Use herbal formulas for support.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.