If you're interested in keeping your anxiety and blood pressure this holiday season, look to your favorite Beatles album for inspiration. Transcendental meditation, the practice that drove George Harrison and co. to India in the late 1960s, was found in a first-of-its-kind study to substantially lower anxiety, depression, and anger among college students. The study, published in 2009 in the American Journal of Hypertension, is the first to link the 1,000-year-old practice both to lowering blood pressure naturally and to improving psychological conditions.
Descriptions of transcendental meditation are fairly vague, and most practitioners describe it as an effortless technique that allows the mind and body to settle down and experience deeper levels of restfulness while the mind remains fully alert. "The premise is that our experience of ourselves and the world is a product of our thinking, the filter through which we perceive and interpret everything we experience," says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. "Through the practice of TM, you can learn to 'transcend' your normal mode of thinking, and thereby develop a more expansive, enlightened way of experiencing yourself and your life." The difference between it and other forms of meditation is that in transcendental meditation, you attempt to achieve that state of transcendence by repeating a mantra over and over again without focusing on any one particular thing, letting your mind go free, says the study's lead author Sanford Nidich, EdD, professor of physiology at the Maharishi University of Management. "It doesn't involve any kind of contemplation or concentration, while most other types of meditation and relaxation training modalities would generally involve some kind of focused attention." Rossman adds that in mindfulness meditation, for instance, you focus on your breath, which keeps your attention rooted in your body and in the here and now.
The study authors recruited 457 students from American University in Washington DC; 159 of the students had risk factors for hypertension, whether a history of hypertension, a family history of the condition, or obesity. All the students were given tests to measure coping abilities as well as levels of psychological distress, which includes depression, anger, and anxiety—all conditions that have been linked to blood pressure.
The students were taught transcendental meditation by certified instructors following a seven-step program, then attended individual training sessions weekly and then monthly, which were used to ensure they continued meditating properly. Individuals were supposed to meditate on their own every day for 20 minutes.
The not-at-risk students saw an average two-point drop in their systolic blood pressure (the top number) and an average one-point drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), and their scores measuring anxiety, depression, and anger were reduced significantly. The at-risk group saw the same improvements in psychological distress, and an even greater reduction in blood pressure scores: 6.3 points for systolic and four points for diastolic, respectively.