An Interview with A NYC Ballet Star

BY LINDA EGENES

Megan Fairchild

“What makes a great performance is when you are free to dance to the music in a way that feels fresh and spontaneous and isn’t contrived. You are in the moment and reacting to the music as the orchestra plays it.” –Megan Fairchild

It’s not often that a fifteen-year-old girl from Salt Lake City finds herself auditioning for the School of American Ballet. And even less likely that the aspiring ballerina gets accepted, graduates, joins the New York City Ballet corps de ballet at age eighteen, becomes a soloist by the time she’s nineteen, and a principal by age twenty. Rarer still for this talented dancer to take the leap from ballet to Broadway star, dazzling crowds and critics alike.

It doesn’t sound real, yet this is the life of Megan Fairchild, age thirty, who is starring in the current revival of the Broadway musical On the Town to great acclaim.

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post writes, “The bell-bottomed boys traditionally dominate this show, but the brightest star in this new revival isn’t one of them: It’s Megan Fairchild, a New York City Ballet principal now making her Broadway debut. That she’s graceful and strikes breathtakingly beautiful lines was a given.…But it turns out the elfin ballerina’s also a nimble, effortlessly funny comedienne. The show explodes with unfettered joy every time she’s onstage.”

My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

When I mention the rave reviews to Megan, she says modestly, “Yes, it’s been crazy.”

Megan has agreed to an interview one morning after performing the evening before. Here she talks about technique, artistry, and her life as a ballet dancer and Broadway star.

Linda Egenes: What made you take a year off from your successful career with the New York City Ballet (NYCB)?

Megan Fairchild: I think it’s no coincidence that my little opportunity happened after I learned Transcendental Meditation almost a year ago. Just five months after starting TM, I got a text from the casting director of On the Town, wondering if I’d be interested in auditioning.

And I’m like, “I am not a Broadway performer. This is crazy.” I laughed about it for a day, and then something happened. The next morning I woke up and I thought, “Why not?”

That was a really important moment for me. Normally I would have been too shy, or would have thought no, that is not me and stayed in my little bubble. Instead, I was thinking that I am at a point in my career where I am ready to try new and different things, and this could be an exercise in jumping out of my comfort zone. I honestly believe that TM had something to do with that decision.

Linda Egenes: How is performing on Broadway different from ballet?

Megan Fairchild: It’s more fun than I expected. Not that there isn’t pressure on Broadway, but there is a little bit more of an “it’s just entertainment” kind of attitude, as opposed to ballet where everything has an ideal or perfect line that you are trying to create. There’s a lot more freedom when dancing on Broadway.

Linda Egenes: Would you say it’s less stressful? I mean, there’s a popular perception that ballet is a stressful profession.

Megan Fairchild: I love my job at the NYCB because I love the people I go to work with. I love the jokes that we share and the sense of community. It’s a loyal company, as they only hire graduates of the School of American Ballet, so there are people that I have known since I was fifteen. It’s like family.

I think TM helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

I think TM helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

But now that I’m stepping away from ballet for a year, I see how much pressure we are all under. We are never done working on being perfect. It’s never, “Oh, that’s great.” It’s always, “Oh, you need to get your leg higher; I need you to turn around one more time in that pirouette; or, wouldn’t it be better if your feet were pointed more?” It’s endless.

Also, the ballet has a deeper meaning, and there is a lot of stress for the ballet dancer to uphold this legacy that is weighing on you every time you step on stage.

Linda Egenes: I understand that it was stress that brought you to TM in the first place.

Megan Fairchild: I would have panic attacks where I would pass out and be rushed to the emergency room. They were so intense that, literally, when I was regaining consciousness, I heard someone screaming, and it was me.

This happened every two years since I was eighteen. Life would get stressful, and one little thing like going to get a shot at the doctor’s office would trigger my whole system to shut down. Then it started happening more often, just six months apart. I had to miss some performances. So I thought, “OK, this isn’t cool. This is affecting my job. I need to figure out how to manage my life in a way that is going to be a little more relaxing.”

One of my ballet masters at NYCB, who did TM, suggested that I try it. She was the consummate professional and always in the moment and ready to get her job done. I felt like, well, if she does it, and she swears by it, then I’m going to try it.

Linda Egenes: So these episodes have subsided?

Megan Fairchild: Yes. The last one was before I started TM. There have been moments that, in the past, would have caused me to get light-headed and possibly go into an episode, but now I watch the moment pass by without any big event. My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

Linda Egenes: How do you reconcile your own creative interpretation with the way the dances have been done in the past?

Megan Fairchild: Even if you get to a point artistically where you are feeling free with your technique, you are also trying to uphold the tradition while you put your stamp on it. I am lucky to work with wonderful ballet masters who are supportive in making me feel like I am the artist here and now, and it’s OK if what I do is a little different from the way ten other really special ballerinas have done it in the past to great fame. My ballet masters tell me the steps, and I feel how my body wants to do it and what feels true to me.

Linda Egenes: Does transcending in your daily TM practice help with balancing artistry with technique?

Megan Fairchild: I think it helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture, being completely in the moment of each step as it’s happening instead of worrying about that technical step coming up. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

Megan Fairchild

I used to feel that things would stick to me like Velcro, and now, things just roll off. I still recognize moments happening that would normally frustrate me, but they just don’t irritate me as much as they used to. I am more able to deal with the stresses that come with my job.

I think what makes a great performance is when you are free to dance to the music in a way that feels fresh and spontaneous and isn’t contrived. You are in the moment and reacting to the music as the orchestra plays it.

In general, I have more patience with myself.

Linda Egenes: In what ways?

Megan Fairchild: Say I do a bad turn or I don’t feel my best that day, or maybe I don’t feel like always being in a leotard or something. TM helps me to let the little stresses that come with being a ballet dancer just roll off a little easier. I am a lot more resilient. I am not getting obsessed over the difficulties of working with this partner or that. It’s just a little easier.

I used to feel that things would stick to me like Velcro, and now, things just roll off. I still recognize moments happening that would normally frustrate me, but they just don’t irritate me as much as they used to. I am more able to deal with the stresses that come with my job.

Linda Egenes: I understand that your brother is also a ballet dancer and is also taking a year off to star in the forthcoming Broadway musical, American in Paris?

Megan Fairchild: Yes, my brother, Robert Fairchild, is three years younger than me, and he is in the NYCB and so is his wife. And I am married to a principal at the company, Andrew Veyette. So we have a little family.

Linda Egenes: So your brother, Robert Fairchild, is following in your footsteps?

Megan Fairchild: Actually, in terms of Broadway, I am kind of following in his footsteps. He was always more into tap and jazz than I was. I got him to do ballet to work on his technique. He ended up in the NYCB and loves it. But he also loves the musicals, and he’s a great singer, actually. Who knew? [Writer’s note: After this interview, Robert Fairchild was nominated for a Tony for his leading role in American in Paris.]

Linda Egenes: I’m curious about the influences that made you and your brother both become professional ballet dancers?

Megan Fairchild: My mom always liked musicals, and because I was dancing around the house, she took me to tap class when I was growing up. There was never any pressure to become a dancer. I’d be thinking, “Oh, wow! I like this!” Then “I like ballet,” so I would be in the Nutcracker; and then “Oh, this is going well. I am going to do ballet full time.” So it was always, “Oh, I enjoy this. Let’s go to the next level.” It was never a grand plan.

 

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 22. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Does Positive Thinking WorkMy mom and I have a nightly ritual. Before I fall asleep I call her from Iowa, where I live, and chat with her in California, where she lives in an assisted living near my sister and her family.

Because of the different time zones, and because she goes to bed early these days, we are both saying our goodnights to each other at the same moment.

I ask about her day, and she asks how my husband, Tom, and I are doing. She loves Tom. “He’s such a nice young man,” she says. “And you are so happy together.

”Sometimes she gives me advice. “Always be nice to each other. Don’t be angry. Try to stay positive,” she counsels.

“You’re really positive, Mom,” I say. “You’re my hero, because you’re choosing to be happy every single day.”And it’s true. Here is a woman who has lost everything — her home, her husband, her short-term memory and her ability to walk and use her right arm due to strokes — yet every day she is choosing to look at the positives. She doesn’t just like it at her assisted living facility, she loves it there. (“Everyone here is so nice.”)

She often talks about my father and how much she misses him, but then she stops and says, “but I can’t dwell on it. I have to go on. Sometimes I look in the mirror and laugh. Even just putting your mouth in a smile makes you feel better. And people wonder—why is she laughing?”

And then she laughs.

What she said is true. There is research that the act of smiling itself can make you feel happier. Russian researchers are also discovering that the sound of positive words has a healing effect on the body, and can even heal the DNA.

In the book, My Stroke of Insight by the Harvard-trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., the author talks from her own experience about the emotional and neurological effects of having a major stroke. She relates that one of the positive effects of her stroke was losing memories of stress and patterns of negativity. When she started to regain her memory, these patterns started coming back. So she worked hard to create new patterns. “The brain is like a muscle, she explained, actually becoming larger in the areas that are used more. The more you make a habit of reaching for the positive thought, the more your brain will automatically go there.

Yet even though there is a huge self-help industry based on this concept—that thinking positively is important for our relationships and our mental, physical and emotional health—we also know that in times of pressure or stress, all the good intentions and positive thinking can fly out the window.

We also know that straining to think positively when you don’t feel it inside can create a disconnect. Probably we’ve all met people who are trying so hard to be positive, but somehow it doesn’t match who they really are.

The strain of trying to be someone you aren’t can actually cause stress to your own body and create discord in the environment. I think this is especially true for women — many of us try too hard to harmonize and be nice and sometimes end up feeling resentful, used, and exhausted. And then there are people like the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada — someone who plasters a smile on her face even while acting maliciously can be downright scary.

So is there a way to naturally feel more positive, to actually change your physiology so you lose the stresses and strains that cloud a sunny outlook in the first place? (And we’re talking about a way that doesn’t involve a major stroke here.)

Because I feel more negative when I’m stressed and tired, doing Transcendental Meditation twice a day — which gives me deep rest and eliminates my stress and fatigue — naturally allows me to be more clear and positive in all my relationships. When you are dissolving stress in your meditations every day, you find your mind naturally thinking more positive thoughts about others, about yourself, about the future.

At the same time, I do feel my mom is right too — most of us can benefit from leaning toward the positive in our lives.

Maharishi talks about this phenomenon in the Science of Being and Art of Living. He writes,“Therefore we must so cultivate our minds that we think and act naturally in a manner which is elevating and beneficial. In this way we will benefit ourselves and others.”

Thanks, Mom, for teaching me how to live. And thanks to Maharishi for this beautiful technique that allows me to dissolve stress in my meditations instead of taking out my frustrations on the people I love.

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the 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, June 14, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

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.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Hedging Against AlzheimersIn January of 2009 both my parents were diagnosed with “dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind” on the same day. I was expecting such a diagnosis for my mother, who was suffering from short-term memory loss (and who had a history of Alzheimer’s in the family). But the diagnosis for my father? My siblings and I were stunned. At 84 he had slowed down, for sure, but we had attributed his sudden disinterest in yard work and taking care of his finances to an infection that he was fighting.

In the following months, as my father’s mental condition declined precipitously, my sister and I scrambled to rearrange our lives to give our parents the care that they needed. And as we talked endlessly about what had caused this, we found out that there was also Alzheimer’s in my father’s family—his mother had been diagnosed with what they termed then as “hardening of the arteries”—with symptoms that today would likely be classified as dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind.

Needless to say, with a history of Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family tree, prevention is on my mind. So I was interested to see a new research study that, to me, points toward stress relief as a way to hedge our bets against this debilitating disease.

The landmark study on Alzheimer’s, conducted at Harvard Medical School and published in Nature, pinpoints a protective protein in the prefrontal cortex (called, interestingly enough, REST) that switches on in the aging pre-frontal cortex in healthy people—but fails to switch on in those with Alzheimer’s. This, the researchers believe, could explain why some people with the amyloid plaques and brain tangles associated with the Alzheimer’s brain have no symptoms of dementia. Researchers have long suspected that another factor was involved, and these researchers think it’s the REST protein that provides the missing link.

Here’s what caught my eye: The protective REST protein is switched on as part of the brain’s stress response.

“Our work raises the possibility that the abnormal protein aggregates associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may not be sufficient to cause dementia; you may also need a failure of the brain’s stress response system,” said Bruce Yankner, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and leader of the study, in an article by Shelley Emling in the Huffington Post.

So in other words, the onset of Alzheimer’s could be related to a failed stress response, which is often caused by chronic stress.

This makes sense to me.

Researchers already know that when a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, planning and coordinating functions, becomes less able to engage with the demands of the environment. It’s as if it goes “offline.” Loss of memory, impaired cognitive functioning, inability to make decisions, ADHD and a host of other mental deficits are symptoms.

One of the best ways to protect the pre-frontal cortex from stress, research is finding, is the daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique. Practicing TM not only reduces day-to-day stress, it breaks the cycle of chronic stress and fatigue. And while stress takes the pre-frontal cortex offline, TM has an enlivening effect, switching it on, in effect.

“The Transcendental Meditation has the exact opposite effect on the pre-frontal cortex as stress,” says Dr. Fred Travis, a researcher who has published more than 100 studies in peer-reviewed journals on stress and the brain. “Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during Transcendental Meditation practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.”

The aging brain, especially, can benefit from the protective benefits of TM on the pre-frontal cortex. Even in healthy, younger people, chronic stress can affect memory, cognition and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. At any age, when we are restricted by stress, fatigue, and other negative factors, then the brain is less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.

I’m suspecting that my daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique can help protect my brain from the dementia and Alzheimer’s that has plagued my family for generations. I’m basing my lifestyle on other research as well. Aerobic exercise is found to build brain cells. Inflammation may be the cause of Alzheimer’s, some researchers say, so eating lots of antioxidants can help. Exercising your brain with plenty of mental stimulation is important. Having a wide social network may be a protective factor, say other studies. Getting enough sleep is another protective factor, a recent study at Temple University recently found.

It all comes down to a balanced lifestyle, and I’m aiming for chronic health rather than chronic disease—for now and into the future.

And while it will take years for researchers to follow up on these studies and others to find the true cause of dementia, who knows? Perhaps by keeping my stress response nimble and strengthening my pre-frontal cortex through TM, getting a good night’s sleep and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, my brain will switch on the REST protein to protect it from the disease that is affecting so many American families, including my own.

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the 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, April 30, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

William Stixrud, Ph.D.a clinical neuropsychologist focusing on Stress ManagementWilliam Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of William Stixrud & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland, a group practice specializing in learning, attention, and emotional disorders. Dr. Stixrud is an adjunct faculty member at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Enlightenment: What is stress?

Dr. Stixrud: Stress is anything that disturbs the body’s homeostasis and causes it to go into the fight or flight response. Certain things happen to the mind and body when you have to respond to a stressor—you get a surge of adrenaline, your muscles get stronger, your senses heighten, and you can do amazing things, like a mother lifting a car when her child is in danger.

However, if the stress response continues to occur, the adrenal steroid cortisol continues to flood the system. The great challenge of modern life is that stress is so prevalent that many people maintain a chronic stress response, which means that they stay in the fight or flight response mode for a long time. Chronic stress is always bad for you.

How does stress affect mental healthEnlightenment: What does stress do to the brain?

It is also true that chronic stress—or being stressed for a long time—actually ends up killing brain cells and shrinking parts of the brain that are extremely important for thinking and learning. For example, people who have been depressed or have had PTSD symptoms for many years usually have a smaller hippocampus, the brain’s major center for creating memories, and this places them at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia. You also see shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex resulting from chronic stress, whereas the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threat, starts working overtime and actually gets bigger. Thus, the more anxious and stressed you are, the more anxious you become.

Enlightenment: How does stress affect mental health?

Dr. Stixrud: In the development of anxiety disorders and depression, the major cause is experience rather than genetics, and the main aspect of experience that creates these mental health problems is stress. Rats show symptoms of depression if they are simply injected with stress hormones. In humans, if you use an MRI scanner to look at the brains of adolescents or adults with an anxiety disorder or depression, the thing that shows up most consistently is a hyperactive amygdala, which indicates that these individuals are highly stressed. Because these problems are stress-related, they can be prevented to a significant extent. Prevention is hugely important because the onset of anxiety problems and depression is occurring earlier and earlier in children. Researchers think depression scars the developing brain, causing increased susceptibility to further bouts of depression. So the top priority is to reduce scarring of the brain by reducing stress-related problems.

Enlightenment: How can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?

Dr. Stixrud: A healthy stress response is when your stress hormones spike dramatically to help you respond to a real stressor, but then go back to normal quickly. In people who are frequently stressed, it’s the opposite—stress levels stay relatively high, go up slowly in an emergency, and take a long time to go down.

Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique normalizes the stress response, which means that stress hormone levels are typically low, spike rapidly in response to threat, and then go down quickly. We want a healthy response to stress, but what we don’t want is a chronic stress response. We want the body to help us do what we have to do when we are threatened, but we don’t want the stress response to remain turned on.

With stressed kids, the level of mental efficiency is so low that it’s hard for them to function. Research shows that kids who meditate do well in school because their brains are working at higher levels of efficiency.

Enlightenment: How can we prevent stress in children and adults?

Dr. Stixrud: Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress. It does things to the brain and body that other stressors do. And Americans are chronically sleep deprived, sleeping 20% to 25% less than they did 100 years ago, before the advent of electricity.

You can prevent and alleviate stress by getting enough rest. This means sleeping until you wake up without an alarm clock—that’s how you know you’re getting enough sleep. Evidence also shows that daily physical exercise, such as walking, helps alleviate stress in the body and brain.

The role of the Transcendental Meditation technique is to provide deep rest to the nervous system, deeper than sleep. It provides this deep rest while making the mind more alert. It’s this combination that creates more resilience under stress.

The TM® technique is really good for the developing brain. Teenagers can do it really easily. They have a center, a core of peacefulness and happiness inside themselves that they can access. The more they do it, the more they find they are less reactive to stress. And if they do get stressed, it goes away faster. They generally sleep better, find it easier to eat normally, and are better able to successfully handle the hassles of life. These kids simply need antidotes to the stressors in life, which may include drugs and alcohol and sleep deprivation.

The TM program also significantly reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes. By de-stressing kids, I think we also significantly reduce the risk for heart-related and obesity-related problems. There is good evidence that the TM technique, by providing a tool for systematically de-stressing, allows the heart to work better, and if the heart works better, the brain works better. It makes kids less at risk for all manner of physical and stress-related problems.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 7. Reprinted with permission.)