More than two million U.S. servicemen and women have been actively engaged in this country’s war against terrorism in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Until our complete withdrawal, that number grows, and until the last soldier gets home, they will continue to face highly stressful combat conditions. Already thousands have returned home only to continue battling against their own emotions. Anger, anxiety and depression are common struggles for returning soldiers. Sometimes these emotions are so overpowering that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops.
At present, standard PTSD treatment relies on some form of behavior-based therapy along with medication. The treatments are considered effective, but they don’t achieve the same results for everyone. That fact helps to explain why the Department of Defense is looking into augmenting treatment with a new potential therapy known as mindfulness meditation.
PTSD is characterized by uncontrollable thoughts and anxieties. Sufferers experience sudden and unexplainable outbursts of anger as well as unbidden flashbacks. Mindfulness meditation helps to alleviate these symptoms by training soldiers to slow down and concentrate on a single, present event such as breathing. During meditation, the soldier may focus attention on something like breathing for a full quarter of an hour. Preliminary studies have shown that this simple practice can lower stress and increase mental acuity.
The first study, a pilot, used 60 pre-deployment marine reservists. These marines were divided into two groups, one learned and practiced mindfulness meditation and the other group did not. The meditation group spent 15 minutes per day practicing the technique. After two months the group practicing daily meditation showed less anxiety and less stress compared to the other group. The meditative reservists were also better able to learn and hold onto new information compared to the non-meditating group. These results were further strengthened by the finding that soldiers who spent more time meditating did better than those who spent fewer minutes in meditation.
The next study was larger, 320 Marines participated this time. Again subjects were divided into two groups, one which practiced mindfulness meditation and one which did not. The Marines were monitored for heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and stress chemicals during intensive training sessions. As before, the group which had learned and was practicing meditation proved to be calmer and was also more quick in responding to threats.
The Department of Defense is interested in these kinds of results. Follow up exams after the soldiers in the study returned to the U.S. found that soldiers who had continued using meditation during their tour of duty showed strong scores on working memory tests. Stress is known to actively erode a person’s level of working memory.
Mindfulness meditation helps affected soldiers regain a sense of control. It lowers stress and improves personal performance. It is a treatment which can benefit soldiers in the field, off the field and even at home. Mindfulness meditation may become more widely used in treating PTSD, but it appears to hold benefit for any soldier who chooses to practice it.