Meditation proved to work well for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a recent study sponsored by the Department of Defense. According to the study, PTSD is a complex disorder affecting 10 to 20 percent of military veterans. The purpose of the study was to see whether non-trauma-focused meditation could be as effective as trauma exposure therapy in reducing PTSD symptoms.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD defines PTSD as “a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.” Those serving in the military are often exposed to horrible and life-threatening experiences while in combat. The National Center for PTSD says these types of events can lead to PTSD.
Prolonged exposure (PE) is a psychotherapy for PTSD. The National Center for PTSD says PE teaches individuals to gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations that have been avoided since the individual initially experienced the trauma. Confronting these challenges can decrease PTSD symptoms, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Exposure therapy doesn’t work for everyone because it requires individuals to intentionally recall traumatic events while confronting emotions. According to Thomas Rutledge, a Veterans Affairs psychologist in San Diego and the study’s senior author, in some cases, vets won’t try exposure therapy or will drop out because it is too difficult for them.
The study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, aimed to compare the non-trauma-focused practice of transcendental meditation (TM) with PE therapy in a clinical trial, and to contrast both therapies with a control of PTSD health education classes (HE). Between June 2013 and October 2016, 203 veterans were randomly assigned to an intervention group (68 to the TM group, 68 to the PE group, and 67 to the PTSD HE group). Before being selected for the study, each of these veterans had experienced a previous diagnosis of PTSD resulting from active military service, and many were taking prescribed medicine for PTSD.
Each treatment provided 12 sessions over the course of 12 weeks with daily home practice. The main outcome was a change in PTSD symptom severity over three months when assessed by the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS). Sixty-one percent of those in the meditation group had improved PTSD symptom severity, compared with 42 percent of those who received exposure therapy, and 32 percent who attended the PTSD health education classes.
The study ultimately found that non-trauma-focused-therapy, or TM, “might be a viable option for decreasing the severity of PTSD symptoms in veterans and represents an efficacious alternative for veterans who prefer not to receive or who do not respond to traditional exposure-based treatments of PTSD.”
There are many different styles of meditation. According to WebMD, TM, the style taught to the vets in the study, is a technique used to avoid distracting thoughts and promotes a state of relaxed awareness. It involves thinking of a mantra or sound to settle the mind.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) already uses meditation, yoga, and similar options to accompany traditional therapy methods used with PTSD, said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the National Center for PTSD. She added that more research is needed to learn how long the benefits of the meditation last.
Meditation might be more acceptable to veterans who associate mental health treatment with weakness. “It’s probably less threatening,” Rutledge told NBC News. “It may be easier to talk to veterans about participating in something like meditation.”
Patrick J. Lowry, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist, has spent 20 years treating service members in the U.S. armed forces. Whether treating soldiers or civilians, he’ll be the first to tell you that everyone needs a little help at times. “We have to be more open and recognize that we all have emotional issues and would probably be better off if we talked with a psychotherapist. It’s about dropping down our walls and admitting that we all are a little bit vulnerable and a little bit weak.”
Lowry recently joined the Live Well Community Health Center team. The Live Well Centers in Buckner, Carrollton, Concordia, and Waverly are owned and operated by Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri. The Live Well Centers are designated as Veterans Choice Program providers. The Veterans Choice Program is designed to help the VA deliver high-quality health care to eligible veterans and expand options for them to receive needed health care services close to home. Interested veterans may call 866.606.8198 to get started or visit hccnetwork.org/veterans-choice to learn more.
For veterans experiencing mental health issues, contact the Veterans Crisis Line, 1.800.273.8255 (press 1), or send a text to 838255. For more information about PTSD among veterans, visit the National Center for PTSD, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/.