Victims of sexual assault who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can learn to reduce negative thinking and increase self-worth with a combination of meditation and aerobic exercise, according to a new pilot study of 100 women published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick found that a combination of mental and physical training — accomplished through meditation and aerobic exercise — can significantly reduce post-traumatic and ruminative thoughts in women with a history of sexual violence.
The women engaged in meditation and aerobics for a total of one hour, twice a week, over a six-week period. Each session began with 20 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by 10 minutes of slow-walking meditation and ended with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.
“Despite the undeniable connection between sexual trauma and mental illness, few interventions are tailored for women who experience sexual violence,” said Dr. Tracey Shors, distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, both in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“Women who experience sexual violence, and people who experience trauma, tend to ruminate over what happened — asking themselves why it happened or if they could have done something differently,” Shors said. “The more you think about it, the more you go over the memories, the more memories you make.”
The small pilot study included 100 women aged 18 to 32 with about one-third of the women having experienced sexual violence. After six weeks of a clinical intervention called MAP Training My Brain, the findings show that the trauma-related thoughts experienced by victims of sexual violence decreased significantly.
The study was broken down into four groups: One group did the MAP Training, which included meditation and aerobic exercise; the second group did only meditation; the third group only did the aerobic exercise; another group did not participate in training.
Overall, the findings reveal that the trauma-related thoughts of women who suffered sexual violence lessened after the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise but not after meditation or aerobic exercise alone. MAP training also enhanced the level of self-worth in all the women who participated.
The findings suggest a synergistic effect of the two activities that can specifically help women learn to recover from the trauma of sexual violence, particularly regarding negative thoughts about stressful life events.
“What we found is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts,” Shors said.
Although PTSD is often associated with veterans returning from war, women — particularly those who are sexually assaulted or victims of violence — are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD, Shors said.
While many women with these experiences do not have PTSD, they still have symptoms related to the memory of what happened. The data suggest that MAP Training can help in that regard, says Shors.
“The #MeToo movement and other platforms have provided women with an opportunity to tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault,” Shors said. “It is important that we also provide them with new ways to help them recover from these experiences.”
“MAP Training should be made available to others because it is easy to learn, doesn’t take much time and actually works.”
Source: Rutgers University