Dr. Marina Khusid is the chief of integrative medicine for psychological health research at Deployment Health Clinical Center. Khusid translates research findings to guide clinical recommendations related to complementary and integrative medicine applications for psychological health.
If you or someone you care about has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy remain the gold standards for treatment. But, you may also find relief in complementary therapies, treatments that don’t yet have sufficient evidence to be considered as a first-line treatment, but are shown to help some people with symptom management and relief. Meditation is a complementary therapy many service members and veterans with PTSD find helps them feel better.
Meditation is a form of mental training. You train your mind by practicing various breathing and concentration techniques to improve your mental state and regulate your emotions.
The therapy has support in clinical practice. The departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense clinical practice guideline for post-traumatic stress mentions meditation as a method to help manage PTSD symptoms when used in addition to standard treatments. The guideline and several recent scientific reviews suggest meditation may decrease some PTSD symptoms by helping you to relax. It’s also thought to help with other mental health conditions, like depression or addiction, which often co-occur with PTSD.
Why else is meditation popular? The practice appeals to many service members with demanding jobs and hectic schedules because it’s safe, effective, easy to learn and can be done anytime, anywhere. You could experience therapeutic effects as soon as two to four weeks into regular meditation practice. Changes to brain patterns can occur as early as eight weeks. The maximum benefit comes when you adopt meditation long-term as a life-style practice.
Also, the self-care nature of meditation practice can help you feel more in control of your symptoms, and empowered to take an active role in your healing process.
While meditation practices vary, here are the three with the most scientific evidence of support for PTSD symptoms:
Changes in the brain after a traumatic event can cause you to repeatedly re-experience disruptive thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness meditation is a technique to increase awareness of the present moment by focusing attention on the essential process of breathing.
You may benefit from mindfulness meditation because it interrupts the stream of intrusive thoughts and memories of the past trauma that characterize PTSD. The benefits extend to helping you process emotions and reduce avoidance symptoms and self-blame.
In this practice, you silently repeat a mantram, a word or phrase that carries a spiritual significance. You should choose a mantram that’s a source of inspiration, comfort and peace. Repeating a mantram directs attention away from disruptive negative thoughts. The technique slows down thought patterns to allow time to prioritize, reflect and evaluate.
Mantram repetition program reduces PTSD symptoms through improving spiritual well-being, and decreasing negative emotions of guilt, shame, and anger related to the experience of trauma.
Compassion or loving kindness meditation involves allowing your mind to be filled with feelings of compassion or of PDF: loving kindness to self, loved ones and all beings. According to Buddhism, compassion involves wishing oneself or another freedom from suffering, and results in the desire to help others.
Compassion meditation has a unique and rare ability to increase positive emotions, which almost no other treatment can provide. Since the brain’s ability to experience positive emotions like joy, happiness, love and satisfaction may be impaired after trauma, this is a very valuable therapeutic benefit. It also promotes self-compassion, a sense of connection to others, and challenges feelings of social isolation.
If you’re open to learning meditation and committed to adopting it as a long-term behavior change, it can be a powerful self-care tool for mental health.