This could help reduce the growing trend of stress-related health conditions among military personnel, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety, according to new research from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Naval Health Research Center.
“Mindfulness training won’t make combat easier,” said Martin Paulus, M.D., professor of psychiatry and senior author. “But we think it can help Marines recover from stress and return to baseline functioning more quickly.”
Mindfulness is defined as a mental state characterized by focusing attention on the present moment, without any elaboration, judgment, or emotional reactivity. Mindfulness training, usually practiced through sitting meditation, attempts to develop this mental state by quieting the mind of unnecessary thoughts.
For the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Marines participated in an eight-week course on mindfulness, specifically designed for individuals operating in highly stressful environments. The training included classroom instruction on meditation and homework exercises, as well as training on interception — helping the body gain balance (homeostasis) by being aware of bodily sensations, such as tightness in the stomach, heart rate, and tingling of the skin.
“If you become aware of tightness in your stomach, your brain will automatically work to correct that tightness,” Paulus explained.
These Marines, along with Marines who had not received mindfulness training, then spent a day in mock immersive combat at a 32,000-square-foot training facility staged to resemble a rural Middle Eastern village. For example, Marines patrolled the village, encountered village leadership and responded to a highly realistic ambush.
The researchers found that the heart and breathing rates of Marines trained in mindfulness returned to their normal, baseline levels faster than those who had not received the training. Also, blood levels of a specific neuropeptide suggested that the mindfulness-trained Marines experienced improved immune function.
Furthermore, magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the mindfulness-trained Marines had reduced activity patterns in brain regions known for integrating emotional reactivity, cognition, and interoception.
Lori Haase, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Paulus’ lab and a co-author of the study, noted that similar brain activity patterns have been observed in high performance athletes and Navy Seals.
High activity in these brain regions, on the other hand, is linked to anxiety and mood disorders. The scientists hypothesize that reduced brain activity in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate may be characteristic of elite performers in general.
“That we can re-regulate the activity in these areas with so little training is this study’s most significant finding,” Paulus said.
“Mindfulness helps the body optimize its response to stress by helping the body interpret stressful events as bodily sensations. The brain adds less emotional affect to experiences and this helps with stress recovery.”