resolutionI have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions. On the one hand, they’re a good excuse to set goals and get my life back on track. My resolutions tend to center on health, mainly because that’s a big focus in my life. But I can’t help but notice they’re all about changing things that are wrong with me. Like “I will stop eating sugar.” “I will lift weights three times a week.” “I will get to bed by 10.”

Each of these resolutions implies that I am lacking in some way—like I am currently eating way too much sugar, not building my muscles and not getting enough sleep.

I was thinking about how to make my resolutions stick, and a thought popped into my head: Perhaps these kinds of resolutions fail because they make us face the new year feeling less than inspired.

It occurred to me that maybe if they were a tad more positive and fun, I might actually stick to them. And who knows? They may have a better effect on my life than all the grimly disciplined “to dos” of my normal list.

This idea gained momentum for me when I read about Shonda Rhime’s new book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person.

If you’re like me and the name Shonda Rhimes doesn’t ring a bell, never mind—her accomplishments will. As the creator, head scriptwriter and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and other TV shows, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, she calls herself a typical Type A personality. And until recently she was living a spectacular life on the job, but less so at home.

What spurred her to write the book, she says, was a sharp wake-up call from her sister. “You never say ‘yes’ to anything,” her sister said. This made Rhimes decide to not only say yes more often, but to seek out the very things she was prone to say ‘no’ to, the very things that scared her. And she ended up standing in the sun and dancing it out, as the book title shares.

I liked this idea of saying yes and immediately started making a list. Instead of focusing on things that scared me, I decided to focus on things that I want to continue doing because they are working for me. And on things I don’t allow myself to do because (as I tell myself), I don’t have time, don’t have money, don’t have the talent, etc.

Here’s my list so far:

1.) Taking a cue from Rhimes, I say yes to dancing. I’ve been taking a class in Indian classical dance that has been truly fun and has lots of health benefits too (when you slap your bare feet on the floor, all the nerve endings in your whole body wake up, stimulating your organs and hormones in a really good way). Plus it’s an all-women’s class, so that’s part of the fun. Yet lately, when I moved up to a more advanced class and couldn’t keep up with the practice time, I let it go. Yet in thinking it over, even if I practiced 10 short minutes a day, I could return to the class and not fall behind.

And why not say yes to this chance to dance? Why not twirl and swirl ten minutes a day? It’s worth a try.

2.) I say yes to taking time to engaging in unstructured play for an hour every week—to spending time in nature, wandering without a schedule, to journal or to play with my water colors and colored pencils.

Playing is so so so important, especially if you’re in a profession that relies on a fresh, creative mind. For me, playing not only rejuvenates my spirit but gives me new ideas that help me in my work. It’s a win-win, so why not say YES to play?

3.) I say yes to getting enough rest. Usually I feel tired by around 9:30 at night. I say yes to the needs of my body and mind. I say yes to paying them more attention. And I say yes to continuing to make time in my day for my twice daily practice of Transcendental Meditation. TM helps me feel happy. It helps me feel rested. It helps my mind think more clearly. And it keeps me grounded to my essential nature, so I stay connected to my best self even when the circumstances around me get challenging or crazy. So I say YES to giving myself this gift even if I’m traveling or with relatives or friends who don’t practice meditation.

4.) I say yes to continuing a great exercise routine. Full disclosure—I spent the money I received from my mom for Christmas on a Fitbit HR, and that has shown me that I’m doing well in the exercise realm. Taking a brisk 30-minute walk each morning with my husband in the early morning sunlight sets me up for the day—with just a little more exercise, my daily running around the apartment brings me to the recommended 10,000 steps most days without strain. And the three times a week weight training is making me feel so enlivened and happy. I say yes to continuing all that and more.

In writing these ideas down, in my mind saying yes started to converge with feeling gratitude for the things that are going right in my life. In some ways, I realized, gratitude is a way to find the yes in every experience.

And that is a good thing. I sometimes find myself—when I get stressed or have too many deadlines—wishing my computer didn’t take so long to boot up, that I didn’t have to wait in line, that there weren’t so many mundane tasks to do in a day. If I’m really stressed, I start feeling agitated by other people’s lack of speed or efficiency. Or my own lack of whatever.

This is not something I’m proud of. It’s a way of wishing life—and myself and the people in my life—were different. And when you start doing that, you can’t enjoy the great people and things that are right in front of you.

So now, when I’m waiting in line at the post office or at the grocery store, I’m using the time to think of things and people I’m grateful for, including the clerk who is so graciously serving me at that very moment. I also am starting each day thinking of three things I’m happy about, and ending the day that way too.

In Part II of this post I’ll explore the power of gratitude, its influence on brain functioning, and the latest findings on the Transcendental Meditation technique and its impact on happiness and well-being.

Happy New Year!

 

Let’s Dance in the New Year (Part II)
Does Gratitude Work?

Expressing gratitude is certainly not a new idea (prayer is a form of gratitude, after all), and lots of people have written about the power of gratitude in recent years. What is new is the increasing evidence that positive emotions, such as gratitude, have a positive effect on brain functioning.

The brain produces an astonishing 100,000 chemical and hormonal reactions every second. These can have good or bad effects. For instance, when we are stressed, the stress hormone cortisol courses through our body, contributing to aging, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. Conversely, other chemical messengers have a positive effect on our minds and bodies—and are released when we are feeling balanced and happy.

Our brain’s neuronal connections also respond to our experiences and our emotions. In fact, the more we experience positive things in our lives, the more we give our attention to happiness, the more our brain gets wired to default to happiness, and the easier it gets to perceive our world in a positive light.

As brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor wrote in her gripping memoir, My Stroke of Insight, “Scientists are well aware that the brain has tremendous ability to change its connections based upon its incoming stimulation. This ‘plasticity’ of the brain underlies its ability to recover lost function.”

Basically, she explains, the neuronal pathways strengthen to reflect the stimulation the brain is receiving. If you make it a habit to think about positive things, in other words, your mind will tend to repeat those neuronal loops instead of the negative ones. It’s kind of like building a muscle—you use the same thought patterns in your brain enough, and those neuronal circuits get stronger and stronger.

A Dance Between Spontaneity and Intention

Yet there’s a problem here. Unless you’re genuinely feeling happy, it’s hard to keep up the positive thinking for very long. It works fine for a while, but if you get tired, or rushed, or stressed, then all good intentions fly out the window. Finding yourself in a negative thought loop, you may say or do things that you later regret.

And, let’s face it, trying to be positive can be a strain. If you’re not actually feeling so happy, plastering a smile on your face is not going to change your inner reality a whole lot (research does say that the act of moving the muscles on your face does lift mood a little). But ask anyone who is depressed how it feels to try to smile and be happy, and they will tell you it is a tremendous strain.

In fact, constantly monitoring your thoughts, forcing any kind of feeling (even positive ones) can divide your mind and add tension and strain to your life.

When you genuinely feel happy, on the other hand, then it’s so easy to respond in a positive way to everyone around you. Then your gratitude is a natural expression of happiness, a spontaneous result of feeling happy.

I think this word “spontaneous” is really important. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the Transcendental Meditation technique in the first place. I really liked the idea that you could spend time meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, diving deep into that reservoir of intelligence, energy and happiness inside you, and then when you’re outside of meditation, spontaneously act. I liked the idea that I didn’t have to try to remember to be happy or make a mood of being happy—the results would come naturally as a result of the experience of pure happiness in meditation, my teacher said.

And that’s pretty much what happened. As I found myself growing in happiness, I naturally started having a more positive viewpoint on my life and the people around me. Basically, it’s become my default mode to feel gratitude—and if I sometimes fall into an impatient mode, it’s not that hard to shift back.

This is a common experience among people who practice TM, I’ve found out. People often find that when they begin the practice, others ask them, “What’s different about you? You seem so happy!”

Rewiring the Brain for Happiness

And yes, there is research that supports this experience of greater happiness. For instance, people practicing the TM technique score higher on tests of well-being and happiness, and higher levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin are measured in the brains of TM practitioners. Research has also shown a significant decrease in stress, anxiety and depression in TM practitioners.

Dr. Fred Travis, the brilliant neuroscientist who has studied the effect of meditation on the neuroplasticity of the brain, explains that the experience of transcendence and inner happiness during Transcendental Meditation actually rewires the brain in a lasting way.

In his book, Your Brain is a River, Not a Rock, he explains that 70 percent of brain connections change every single day, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

“The circuits in the brain are continuously sculpted by experience,” he says. “If we are constantly under stress, then the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response grows thicker, and we find ourselves reacting to small stresses as if they are life-threatening.”

Dr. Travis goes on to say, “But—and this is the take-home point—if we add the experience of transcending to our daily routine, then brain connections that support the experience of pure consciousness are strengthened. This is the reality of growth to enlightenment. It happens every day with every session of the Transcendental Meditation technique.”

In other words, because in our quiet moments of meditation our minds experience the field of pure happiness inside us, that style of functioning of the brain becomes more dominant. Over time as we meditate regularly and go about our daily activities, the mind becomes more and more habituated to staying in that state of pure happiness, or bliss, even outside of meditation.

I love this idea of spontaneously growing in the ability to embrace more of life, of saying yes to the beautiful world around us. This is really what enlightenment is—experiencing everyone and everything as being as dear to us as our own self—our senses expanding to drink in the sounds, tastes, smells, textures and sights of our beautiful world. And from there, to embrace with love all our fellow creatures on this earth—whether family, friend or stranger across the world.

These are a few of my thoughts for the New Year—what are yours?

I wrote originally wrote this post for TM-Women.org. See www.tm-women.org

BY LINDA EGENES

America has the most expensive healthcare system in the world. Researchers cite the increase in chronic disease as a major cause of escalating costs and predict a 42 percent rise in chronic disease by 2023, adding $4.2 trillion in treatment costs. The good news is that chronic disease is preventable, since many chronic conditions are linked to stress and unhealthy lifestyles.

Robert E. Herron, Ph.D., is an independent researcher, writer, speaker, and consultant in medical cost reduction and economic policy, and he is currently the director of the Center for Holistic Systems Analysis in Fairfield, Iowa. Dr. Herron’s new book, New Knowledge For New Results, presents a comprehensive strategy to reduce rising medical costs. While other researchers focus mainly on financial issues, Dr. Herron re-examines the underlying foundations of modern medicine.

Here Dr. Herron talks about our current healthcare crisis and how the Transcendental Meditation technique can help prevent chronic disease and lower costs.

Linda Egenes: As a nation, how can preventive measures help us to lower healthcare costs?

Dr. Robert Herron: To say it in one sentence, by providing preventive treatment modalities to the people who consistently incur the greatest expenses, we could leverage the greatest reductions in overall medical expenses and end up with the lowest treatment cost for everyone.

In most populations, a small fraction of people account for the majority of healthcare costs. In the U.S., for instance, the 10 percent of the population with the highest expenses incurred 60-70 percent of our total medical expenditures annually. In the Medicare population, the highest spending 5 percent incurred 43 percent of total Medicare costs, and 25 percent of seniors accounted for 85 percent of total expenses.

Research shows that high-cost people typically have chronic conditions, which are affected by excessive stress. As we know, stress degrades the immune system and other physiological systems, such as the cardiovascular system and contributes to a wide range of physical and mental disorders.

Prolonged stress also contributes to the unhealthy lifestyles that cause most chronic conditions—such as smoking, drinking, and abuse of drugs—which account for approximately 80 percent of national medical expenditures. Clearly, stress reduction will help reduce high medical costs.

Because chronic stress is a leading driver of high medical expenses, if health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid started covering the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, the most effective stress-reduction method as shown by research, it would be possible to greatly reduce skyrocketing national healthcare expenditures without cutting benefits, increasing premiums, or raising taxes.

Linda Egenes: How does the Transcendental Meditation technique reduce stress?

Dr. Robert Herron: When you meditate, your body experiences a unique state of physical and mental rest that eliminates stress and helps to balance and normalize all your bodily systems. The TM technique also makes the mind and body more resilient so you don’t accumulate excessive stress in the future. This improves health and reduces costs.

In addition to stress release, however, there are other beneficial activities that occur during the TM technique. For instance, during TM sessions many researchers have found that brain functioning is enhanced, resulting in greater brain orderliness and coherence, which also increases intelligence and creativity.

Disease is a state of disorder or imbalance in both mind and body. Because the brain controls most systems in our physiology, if we make the brain more orderly, then the entire body also becomes more orderly and healthy, including the heart. That is why the research shows that when we improve health with the TM technique, there are corresponding declines in all disease categories and medical costs.

Linda Egenes: I understand that you’ve published a number of research studies on healthcare costs. Can you talk about your research?

Dr. Robert Herron: The most recent study was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in 2011. The results indicated that people with consistently high doctors’ bills experienced a 28 percent cumulative decrease in physician fees after an average of five years of TM practice. Even after the first year of meditation, the TM group’s physicians’ bills declined by 11 percent.

What did these findings mean? First of all, the research demonstrated that the largest and quickest reductions in medical costs could be achieved by providing the TM program to people with consistently high healthcare costs—the very people who are driving up the costs of healthcare today.

Secondly, it showed that a nonmedical intervention, the Transcendental Meditation technique, resulted in a statistically significant decline in healthcare usage that persisted for five years. In other words, with the group that practiced TM, the number of times they visited the doctor was less at the end of the five-year study than it had been at the start of the study.

This kind of decline in healthcare usage had never been shown before. Prior to this research, health economists and leaders hoped that someday the best interventions might be able to, at best, slow down the rate of increase in medical expenses.

Thus leaders in the field of healthcare had never even imagined that a decline in healthcare usage would be possible for this group of chronically ill patients. Yet because the TM technique has such a powerful health-enhancing effect, the impossible has become the common experience of people who meditate regularly.

Linda Egenes: That’s an extraordinary finding. Are there any other studies that indicate the Transcendental Meditation technique can create a decrease in healthcare utilization over a long period of time?

Dr. Robert Herron: Yes, several other studies also suggest this. For instance, a study by Dr. David Orme-Johnson, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 1987, examined five years of health insurance data to assess the medical usage of 2,000 TM practitioners compared with controls. When compared with norms (everyone else in the health insurance plan of the same age and gender) and other groups of similar profession, the TM subjects had 50 percent lower inpatient and outpatient medical visits. This trend held across all age groups and disease categories. According to the clinically significant findings, there was 87 percent less hospitalization than norms for heart disease, and 55 percent less hospitalization than norms for cancer.

This study and others demonstrating reduced healthcare utilization through the TM technique were published in peer-reviewed journals, and over 242 additional studies have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals showing that the TM technique improves a wide range of mental and physical health disorders. Many of these studies were randomized clinical trials and meta-analyses.

Several randomized clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health found that the TM technique decreases high blood pressure, improves heart function, reduces cardiovascular mortality, and decreases all-cause death rates.

The body of research is strong. To me, it implies that we should make policy changes at all levels of the healthcare system to make this life-saving methodology of the TM technique available to everyone. Then we could begin to halt the epidemic of stress-related diseases that are causing unnecessary suffering and driving healthcare costs higher.

Linda Egenes: I understand that the TM technique has also been shown to be a cost-effective way to treat mental disorders such as chronic anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dr. Robert Herron: Yes. Three research studies that evaluated the impact of TM practice on veterans who suffer from PTSD found dramatic declines in negative tendencies, as well as increases in happiness, harmony, positive attitudes, and wholesome, productive lifestyles. The numerous testimonials from these veterans indicate that the TM technique completely changed their lives and, in many cases, saved them from suicide. These early studies are now being repeated in other settings with many more veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.

Linda Egenes: Based on your research and knowledge of the healthcare system, what would it take to get a preventive program such as the Transcendental Meditation technique widely adopted?

Dr. Robert Herron: For a preventive program such as the TM technique to become widely adopted, the federal and state governments and health insurance organizations simply need to examine the entire body of TM research that verifies its health benefits. Then, in the best interests of their constituents and consumers, they could provide full insurance coverage for starting the TM technique as soon as possible. Governments would save large amounts of money and would be able to balance their budgets more easily.

So the solution is simple: just add a TM benefit. If the TM technique were made available to the entire population, it could become a powerful means to prevent disease and enhance happiness and progress in all areas of life.

Linda Egenes is co-editor of Enlightenment: The Transcendental Meditation® Magazine. She is the author of five books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 18. Reprinted with permission.)

Here I am writing at  the Oakdale Farms Writer's Retreat Photo by Cheryl Fusco Johnson.

Here I am writing at the Oakdale Farms Writer’s Retreat Photo by Cheryl Fusco Johnson.

It turns out I have a job that puts me at risk for depression. Writers, artists and other creatives are on a list of the top ten jobs linked to depression posted on Health.com in 2012. Understandably, caregivers, health-care workers and teachers are in the top ten, but writers? The article cites irregular paychecks, uncertain hours, and isolation as stressful elements of the job.  Creative people may also have higher rates of mood disorders, with 9 percent reporting an episode of major depression in the previous year.

From another perspective, just being a woman puts me at risk for depression. Nearly twice as many women suffer from depression than men, research shows, most likely because the female brain is wired in a way that makes women more susceptible to stress. Women are affected by lower levels of stress than men, produce more stress hormones than men and recover from stress less quickly.

Depression can take different forms for women than for men. For instance, depression in the winter months, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, hits more women than men, as does depression caused by hypothyroidism. Women are also more likely to suffer from “atypical” depression. This means that the normal signs of depression are eating less, sleeping less and losing weight, but in many women, the opposite happens: women who are depressed may sleep more, eat more and gain weight.

Reading this makes me grateful that I started the TM technique early in life, at age 19. Because the TM technique lowers stress, it helps protect the brain from many psychological diseases, including depression. In fact, research shows that the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique reduces the risk of depression by almost 50 percent over the period of a year. That is significant for women of any age.

Radio host Howard Stern tells the story of his mother’s struggle with severe depression on the David Letterman show. “I was 18 years old. I was in college. My mother was severely depressed—her sister had died and she took it very, very hard. I was worried about her. I get a call one day from this happy, elated woman and I wonder, ‘Who is this?’ and it’s my mother. She tells me she was watching the Johnny Carson Show and she saw Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and she went on and learned Transcendental Meditation. My mother sounded transformed. She said to me, ‘Come on, I want to take you down to the TM Center.’ I did it. And it’s the easiest thing I ever did. I have been doing it since I was 18. I love to do it after the show. I find it very relaxing.”

Like Howard Stern’s mother, many women today find themselves overwhelmed with depression at some point in their lives (79% of antidepressant prescriptions are written for women, and 1 out of 3 women who visit a doctor leave with a prescription for an antidepressant).

If you know someone who is exhibiting signs of depression (see the signs below), encourage him or her to get help from a medical doctor immediately. This is especially important if someone has been depressed for a long period of time, because suicide is a very real risk of chronic depression.

Typical Signs of Depression (from WebMD):

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

There are many causes and types of depression, and while the Transcendental Meditation technique cannot cure all of them, it can be an effective adjunct to medical care, because it is a natural and enjoyable way to prevent and relieve depression without the negative side effects.

According to Dr. Nancy Leibler, author of Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way, “Severely depressed people often believe they will never feel better. Because the TM technique gives us a feeling of fulfillment and calmness, it also gives hope.””

Linda Egenes is a health writer, blogger and author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, July 1 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

IMG_2767Last year “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was one of the most popular articles on The Atlantic’s website (www.theatlantic.com)—and nearly a year later it’s still getting a lot of attention. Clearly, it hit a nerve with thousands of women who are finding themselves stretched thin while juggling career, childcare and, in many cases, parental care.

Written by Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the article shares the author’s personal journey as a feminist, career woman and mother. At the pinnacle of her career she found herself resigning from her dream job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department so she could move back to Princeton where her husband and family lived, and where she resumed her teaching position. She needed to spend more time with her teenage sons, one of whom was in crisis. She needed to figure out a better approach to work-life balance.

The article is long and so full of insight that it’s difficult to paraphrase it here, but one of the sections that struck me most was titled, “Rediscovering the Pursuit of Happiness.” In it Slaughter says that because women have been so intent on competing with men, many have lost touch with their own deepest desire to nurture their children and families.

She writes, “One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted . . . . I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.”

Yet, as the author notes, the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States. “One phrase says it all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly among elites. In Washington, ‘leaving to spend time with your family’ is a euphemism for being fired,” writes Slaughter.

Not to mention that for most women, taking a break from their jobs is not economically viable, nor are the family-friendly changes in social policies, the workplace and attitudes advocated by the author going to happen overnight.

And, having come this far, most women don’t want to give up on their dreams of success. Rather, they want to strengthen themselves in body, mind and spirit so they can handle their busy lives with grace and ease.  Perhaps the solution lies in finding a way to achieve balance on the inside so that will be reflected in greater balance in outer life.

CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien says that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is helping her to balance work and family. She says, “If you know me, you know I cannot meditate! I have a crazy schedule, I have four small children and I am always going, so the idea of calming my mind I thought, ‘not possible!’ But I was able to learn, I was able to do it, and I appreciate very much the opportunity to take the time to focus and meditate. It allows me to experience a state of deep rest and relaxation that can be game-changing and sometimes a life saver in a crazy world. It helps alleviate stress and pressure when you’re trying to balance life and being a mother. And as a journalist I feel healthier and have fewer stressful days and more energy and more clarity of mind.”

Many other women are finding that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique is a practical way to stay in touch with the most silent, rested, happy and powerful aspect of themselves. By staying rested, a woman can enjoy life more, find more happiness in whatever task is on her plate. And as Slaughter points out, the pursuit of happiness is essential to wellbeing, an integral part of the American dream.

And certainly that’s the key point here. In order to balance the various demands in our day, we have to take care of ourselves, nurture ourselves, and from that stable base we can nurture the others in our lives, whether at home or in the workplace. And isn’t that an appealing definition of what it means for women “to have it all”?

Linda Egenes is a health writer, blogger and author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, July 1 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

 

IMG_0458Last year I spent some time helping a high school girl (let’s call her Katya) with her writing. Katya is an excellent writer, college-bound, but at the beginning of her critical junior year, she choked with anxiety and didn’t turn in a major paper for her honors English class. And got a D for the first semester.

As a family friend, I was enlisted to help build up Katya’s confidence, calm her anxiety, and boost her writing skills. Believe me, I felt a great deal of empathy for Katya. I remembered all too clearly my own teenage years, when writing a term paper was a matter of hacking my way through thickets of negative thoughts, quicksands of panic and swamps of self-doubt. Sometimes I would work so hard at writing a major paper that I would practically have a nervous breakdown.

It appears that Katya’s and my experience may have been due to a quirk of the teenage female brain. In a research study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, Michigan State University researchers have discovered that the brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of anxious boys, making them prone to burnout and lower levels of performance.

The study found that college-age women who identified themselves as big worriers tended to have high levels of brain activity when they made mistakes. Even though the scores for both stressed females and males were about the same, women’s brains had to work harder. As the test became more difficult, the more anxious women did worse on the task, meaning anxiety and stress was affecting the girls’ performance.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” said Jason Moser, the lead investigator. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school.”

And, it seems, set the stage for anxiety later in life. According to the National Institutes of Health, how anxiety affects the female brain is significantly different than the way it affects men. Women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime (that’s nearly double the rate of men). And women also have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

I realize that we are getting into touchy waters here, as in the past women have been negatively stereotyped as anxious and even hysterical. Yet the statistics are there—women are not only more likely to develop anxiety, but also depression and other mental/emotional disorders. Whatever the cause, it seems we need to address these issues and figure out how to protect young girls and women from these risks. To quote Huffington in “The Conversation We Need to Have About Women and Anxiety”: “When we’ve reached a point where 23 percent of American women are all struggling with the same demons, it’s time to start talking about them and confronting them – collectively.”

So what is the cause of the high rates of anxiety in women? Some experts hypothesize that this difference arises from a combination of hormonal fluctuations, brain chemistry and upbringing. Others believe the cause is social stresses that women experience, such as lower wages, balancing home and career, and the constant measuring up to images of perfection in the media and advertising.

In the University of Michigan study, Jason Moser says he is “investigating whether estrogen, a hormone more common in women, may be responsible for the increased brain response. Estrogen is known to affect the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in learning and processing mistakes in the front part of the brain.”

This comment about dopamine rings a bell. In the research on the Transcendental Meditation technique, it’s been found that the hormones dopamine and serotonin are secreted during the practice of TM, creating what researchers call “the rest and fulfillment response” that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response.

Research also shows that the TM technique allows the mind to effortlessly settle inward beyond worries and agitation. The body gains a deep state of relaxation and the mind becomes more serene. The whole physiology spontaneously shifts into a more balanced, harmonious style of functioning that is the extreme opposite of the stress response. Biochemicals in the bloodstream associated with tension and anxiety—such as cortisol and plasma lactate—are significantly reduced, and the brain functions with greater coherence.

Thousands of women are finding relief from anxiety through the regular practice of TM. Take Dana Farley, now 22, who suffered from severe dyslexia and anxiety as a student.  “I had a lot of insecurities when it came to doing the homework or asking questions in class. TM basically slowed things down for me and I don’t have all these negative thoughts in my head when I’m doing a task. I’m not putting myself down all the time.”

After starting TM as a high school student, Dana was so struck by the changes she experienced that she made a feature film, Beyond the Noise: My Transcendental Meditation Journey to help other teenagers, especially girls, find relief from their anxieties. Now a graduate of Bucknell University, she says about her film, “I had been dealing with typical teenage stuff—the usual anxieties and depressions that so many teens are trying to deal with. I also grew up with a learning disability that created its own intense stress. By creating this documentary I wanted to bring awareness to the negative things that teens are experiencing, and show how effective TM can be in helping people overcome stress and become more natural.”

Like Dana, I have my own happy ending. I started meditating at age 19, and slowly the anxiety dropped off along with the anxiety and negative thoughts that were causing my brain to struggle so hard while writing.

Katya’s story, too, had a happy ending—with a great deal of hard work and many weekends spent struggling, she made up the missing paper, raised her grade for the first semester to a B and finished the second semester trailing clouds of glory with a solid A. I was so proud of her, but I couldn’t help wishing that she, too, would take the steps to learn and practice TM, to protect her brain from stress and anxiety, and so she can get those A’s with less struggle and angst.

As Dr. William Stixrud, a neuropsychologist from Washington, D.C., who makes his living helping kids with depression, ADHD and other learning disorders says, “Because we know that teenage girls are sculpting their adult brain by how they use it in their teen years, it’s especially important that they take advantage of tools like TM to help reduce their level of stress and anxiety.”

Linda Egenes is a health writer and author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, September 1 2013. Reprinted with permission.)

Photo credit: Linda Egenes.