With its emphasis on developing tranquility, meditation may seem an odd fit for the military. But recent studies have shown that mindfulness meditation is extremely effective in lowering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and increasing focus.
During the past nine years, over 2 million American soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As many as several hundred thousand may now suffer from PTSD, say experts. Symptoms include anxiety, anger, depression, flashbacks and nightmares.
PTSD is usually treated with drugs, behavioral therapy and other approaches. But for many, these approaches don’t work. Now, a completely natural method is proving itself successful: mindfulness meditation.
In this type of meditation, the practitioner focuses on a single thing, such as breathing, for a set period of time. This generally lasts for 15 to 20 minutes.
“It’s clear that mindfulness can lower stress in many contexts,” said Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D., an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and a former U.S. Army captain, who has been involved in the studies and began practicing meditation to deal with her own PTSD. “We think it can work for soldiers dealing with the extreme stress of combat.”
Stanley believes that meditation should be as much a part of basic training as learning to fire a weapon or march in formation.
The research by Stanley and her colleagues has attracted the attention of some military leaders, including the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan.
A pilot study focused on 60 Marine reservists who were going through two months of intense training before being deployed to Iraq. One group received instruction in mindfulness meditation and were asked to meditate for 15 minutes a day; the other group got no meditation training.
After two months, the meditation group reported significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness training provided another benefit as well—it made the soldiers smarter. Specifically, it improved their ability to retain new information.
Participants were asked to remember letters from the alphabet while doing simple arithmetic. Those in the mindfulness meditation group did significantly better at this task than those who didn’t receive such training, and those who meditated more did better than those who meditated less.
The researchers followed up this pilot study with more research, funded by the Department of Defense. One study looked at 320 Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who were preparing to go to Afghanistan.
One group was given mindfulness training. During intense training sessions, researchers monitored all of the Marines’ blood pressure, heart rate and breathing as well as a range of neurochemicals related to stress.
They found that the mindfulness group was not only calmer during and after the immersion exercises but also responded faster when a threat appeared.
Meditation seems to produce its effects though a variety of mechanisms, according to the researchers. They found that mindfulness increases levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, a hormone that repairs cellular damage caused by stress. It also lowers levels of cortisol and neuropeptide Y, stress-related chemicals that, over time, can damage tissues.