An interview with the “father of stress” about TM

I came across this mid-1970’s interview with Dr. Hans Selye, the scientist who is considered the founder of the concept of stress in modern medicine. He was recognized as the 20th century’s leading authority on the subject of stress and its impact on human health.

Dr. Selye’s interest in the use of the Transcendental Meditation technique as a method to handle stress began in the 1970s after discussions he had with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Here are excerpts from Dr. Selye’s interview with author Robert Oates, which was published in his book, Celebrating the Dawn.

Dr. Selye:

“It was my good fortune to have spent almost an entire day with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at one of his international symposia. Ever since then I have felt it would be extremely fruitful to explore in detail the obvious physiological and psychological influence exerted by Transcendental Meditation on stress in the body.

“Research already conducted shows that the physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation are exactly the opposite to those identified by medicine as being characteristic of the body’s effort to meet the demands of stress.”

When you say that the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique are the opposite of those resulting from stress, you mean that the results are the opposite of those produced when demands are made upon the body?

Dr. Selye:

“Yes. The research shows this for metabolism, breathing, skin resistance, blood lactate, brain waves and the cardiovascular system. The same way, the therapeutic effects of Transcendental Meditation on bodily derangements is most evident in the conditions known as ‘diseases of stress’ or ‘diseases of adaption’—especially in mental, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and hypersensitivity ailments—ailments caused by inappropriate responses to the stresses of everyday life.”

Maharishi claimed that if a person continues to meditate, the system dissolves stress progressively and cumulatively, and that eventually it is possible to live life free from stress altogether. Do you also see this as a possibility for the human nervous system?

Dr. Selye:

“Well, we are talking about different definitions of the word stress, and I think that even though this conversation is meant for nonmedical people, we should keep it absolutely correct scientifically. And if we use the medical definition of stress, then it isn’t the object of Transcendental Meditation or any other technique or medicine to annul all stress.”

Why not?

Dr. Selye:

“Without some level of stress, we couldn’t even be talking now!”

It takes some level of stress to talk?

Dr. Selye:

“The definition of stress is the response to any demand. Even while you sleep, even while you are under anesthesia, you have some stress because you are using some part of your body—your heart pumps, your respiration goes on.”

So talking about it simply, the difference in the definitions is that when Maharishi uses the word stress he definitely means something negative, but the medical definition can mean something either positive or negative.

Dr. Selye:

“Yes. You see, when I created the concept I didn’t think of this difference, I called it stress. But then there was often confusion. The general public uses stress and distress as synonymous, but they are not. The stress of pain, of sorrow, of nervousness, of suffering—that’s bad stress, distress. But the stress of creation, or the stress of being able to achieve by taking things in a resilient way, you don’t want to eliminate that. So there is good stress (technically ‘eustress’) or bad stress (‘distress’) but the response to any demand is stress. There is always stress, so the only point is to make sure that it is useful to yourself and useful to others.”

So then, using these terms, how would you define the usefulness of the Transcendental Meditation technique?

Dr. Selye:

“I would refer to it as a method which so relaxes the human central nervous system that it can live with stress better, that it doesn’t suffer from stress, without losing all it’s useful effects. Transcendental Meditation prepares the nervous system for all activity. It’s the nervous system, after all, that is the major source of pleasant stress or distress, of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. And I think that if you can influence the nervous system through Transcendental Meditation so that it can really relax, really be at it’s best in responding non-specifically to any demand, that is an ideal solution.”


Hans Hugo Bruno Selye (1907-1982) is known as “the father of stress.” As early 1926, still only in his second year of medical school, Dr. Selye began developing his now-famous theory of the influence of stress on people’s ability to cope with and adapt to the pressures of injury and intense experience. Through his life-long study and research he concluded that stress plays some role in the development of every disease and that failure to cope with stress can result in “diseases of adaptation” such as ulcers, high blood pressure and the many other diseases that are caused or complicated by stress.

Dr. Selye held three doctorate (M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.) and was 43 times a Doctor Honoris Causa. Selye wrote some 39 books and more than 1,700 articles on stress and related problems. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize 10 times.