Mind, Breath, Body: Meditation for Veterans with PTSD

Meditation for Veterans with PTSDA soldier may not be the first person you imagine meditating, yet many military vets are finding relief from post-traumatic stress disorder after taking up the practice. It’s a low-cost treatment that’s proving to have long-term success rates.

As many as 20 percent of veterans who served after 9/11 are diagnosed with PTSD each year, and an estimated 12 percent of Gulf War veterans and 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The trauma of battle, being injured, or seeing others injured or killed make the prevalence of PTSD all too real.

Treatment for PTSD

PTSD sufferers struggle with severe anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and nightmares. They may feel hopeless and have difficulty communicating with loved ones. No single treatment works for everyone, but the condition is typically treated with behavioral therapy and medication.

New studies in the past few years point to meditation as an effective adjunct therapy for PTSD sufferers.

“Historically, the technique of meditation and in its most recent incarnation ‘mindfulness’ have been powerful tools to reduce the impact of combat stress and in the management of PTSD,” says Joseph Troiani, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Navy commander and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Adler University. Founder of the university’s programs in military psychology, he currently directs Adler’s M.A. in Psychology: Specialization in Military Psychology.

Mindfulness Meditation and PTSD

The University of Michigan conducted an eight-week study of veterans with PTSD at a Veterans Administration outpatient clinic. Half of the veterans underwent mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines cognitive therapy with mindfulness meditation, and the other half were treated with traditional therapies.

Mindfulness meditation focuses on breathing and scanning the body for pain and tension. The technique also emphasizes an awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings. This technique is counter to what PTSD sufferers tend to do, which is suppress painful emotions and memories.

Anthony P. King, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, explained that this avoidance of painful emotions and memories allows the symptoms to continue. “Through the mindfulness intervention, however, we found that many of our patients were able to stop this pattern of avoidance and see an improvement in their symptoms,” he said in a news release.

At the end of the eight weeks, 73 percent of the participants in the mindfulness treatment had improved, while only 33 percent in the traditional therapy group improved. With the reduction of avoidance behaviors in the mindfulness group, these veterans were less likely to blame themselves and less likely to view the world as a dangerous place, according to the study’s authors. The study was published in the July 2013 issue of Depression and Anxiety.

Other Types of Meditation for PTSD

Mindfulness meditation is not the only technique to help PTSD sufferers. At the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C., groups of veterans meet weekly to practice a form of meditation called Yoga Nidra, a lucid sleeping state where participants experience deep relaxation.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center first used the meditation to help wounded soldiers deal with chronic pain without drugs. It was renamed “iRest” to remove any confusion that it’s a yoga practice. Veterans learn how to unclench their muscles to ease their tension and pain, and to better tolerate disturbing images and memories without triggering negative emotions.

Sudarshan Kriya yoga, a breathing-based meditation, has also shown to be an effective therapy for veterans with PTSD. Emma Seppala, associate director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, studied 21 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The veterans met for three-hour sessions over seven days. The study was published in the August 2014 issue of Journal of Traumatic Stress.

After the sessions, participants reported less anxiety and fewer PTSD symptoms, and their respiration rates were lower. The most significant changes were fewer traumatic memories and nightmares, and lower hyperarousal. Veterans with PTSD “are easily startled and hypervigilant,” Seppala explains. After meditating, participants reported they were less hypervigilant, and the researcher’s measurement of the veterans’ eyeblink responses to loud noises confirmed this testimony.

One year after the study, participants were still doing well. Seppala suggests the Sudarshan Kriya yoga retrained the veterans’ memories.

A Harvard Medical School study led by neurologist Brigid Schulte confirms the effectiveness of meditation for PTSD symptoms. The study showed the amygdala, which is associated with stress, fear, and anxiety, shrank after eight weeks of meditation. This change in the amygdala was correlated to reduced stress levels, and may mean new hope for veterans suffering from PTSD. The study was published in the January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging.

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