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Let Your Brain Relax: Mindfulness Meditation Can Reduce Some TBI Symptoms

DCoE blog: Mindfulness

Staying in the moment can be hard for anyone, but it’s a particular challenge for people recovering from brain trauma. Mental distractions, such as too much excitement, anxiety and other mental stress, are hallmarks of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and can affect the healing process. According to experts and research, a simple and effective way to help the brain repair itself is to give it a little R&R (military slang for rest and recuperation).

That’s where mindfulness meditation, which helps quiet the mind, comes in. This form of meditation is becoming more common as research continues to prove the benefits of using it to treat traumatic brain injury. Mindfulness meditation teaches patients to achieve open, accepting, non-judgmental awareness (mindfulness) of the present moment by focusing attention on the breath. It is helpful not only during the stressful period immediately after an injury but throughout the recovery process, according to an expert with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC).

“Being able to stay in the moment and calm the mind is useful for TBI recovery,” said Dr. Donald Marion, a senior clinical consultant with DVBIC. “I think this practice is both beneficial during recovery and also down the road ¾ you can use these techniques almost any time.”

Mindfulness meditation is most often used as an adjunctive treatment for stress management, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and pain. Although its use in TBI therapy is less common, it can be a powerful tool, said Dr. Maulik P. Purohit, director of research of neurorehabilitation and traumatic brain injury at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. His research has shown that meditation may potentially have multiple impacts on different areas of the brain.

“It helps mitigate some of the stress response that can cause harm to areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and other cognitive functions,” Purohit said.

According to Purohit, meditation has the potential to create beneficial neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to reorganize itself) in several important areas of the brain, such as the medial pre-frontal cortex, dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, cingulum bundle, and corpus callosum.

It can also improve sensory functions and interoceptive perception, “which means the individual has a better understanding of what is going on inside his/her body to help address things such as stress,” he added.

Although we don’t know the exact percentage of TBI patients who are using mindfulness meditation to cope with symptoms, Purohit said it and other alternative therapies are popular with patients. He conducted a national study which found that 40 percent of patients with one neuropsychiatric symptom turn to integrative medicine in the course of a year, increasing to 50 percent for patients with three or more symptoms.

“Anecdotally, based on our clinical population, there appears to be a high demand for non-pharmaceutical treatments for patients with TBI as well,” Purohit said.

Patients who sustain TBI are affected not just physically but emotionally, according to Dr. Rick Leskowitz, Director of Integrative Medicine Project at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. While the physical signs of a TBI may not be immediately visible, the way the patient acts and reacts in normal, everyday situations can offer clues. Outbursts, not responding to peers or showing signs of extreme mood swings can be symptoms of a TBI. All can be reduced by mindfulness meditation, he said. Physical symptoms such as headache and dizziness can take longer to heal.

“Sometimes emotional symptoms are easier to shift, while the physical problems are a bit more embedded and take longer to respond,” Leskowitz said.

By far the greatest benefit of mindfulness is improvement in a person’s attention span, he said. This is important for TBI patients but it’s also helpful for anyone, especially in the Internet age.

“Our modern society is so distracted by devices and screens that people function as though they have mild concussions and can't focus,” Leskowitz said. “That's why meditation is becoming so popular ¾ it really gives people control once again over their ability to pay attention.”

A recent post in the DCoE Blog series on mindfulness described simple steps for meditating mindfully. A mindfulness mobile application developed by the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2) and the Department of Veterans Affairs is available from the iTunes store.

Comments (6)

  • Photographing hearts I see everyday (yes, I find hearts everyday) has helped me to cope (and aids in healing) from the chronic pain and cognitive issues I have everyday from sustaining traumatic brain injury in two falls (2006 and 2011). Photography is my MEDITATION and my MINDFULNESS>spending time in nature is my most favorite and with camera in hand, I am mindful of all around me, of what I see and hear, and this is a blessing!
  • Sandra, thank you for sharing how photography has helped you in your healing process.
  • I have post concussion syndrome and need to find the right help for my issues. Can anyone recommend a neuropsychologist or someone for a second neurological opinion. I'm also looking for a support group. Thanks
  • Lisa, we're sorry to hear that you're having issues post concussion. The DCoE Outreach Center can help you find resources in your area. Call 866-966-1020, email or live chat We hope you have a speedy recovery!
  • For anyone interested, based off of extensive scientific research, I would highly suggest neurofeedback for TBI. It helps strengthen and weaken specific pathways in the brain, depending on your condition and imaging (specifically Quantitative EEG - QEEG). The significance of the brain changes is analogous to the grey matter and white matter brain changes induced by meditation. Multiple studies using fMRIs have confirmed the physical changes. It requires time and several sessions to improve, but it can have a life changing impact. It is used by the used miltary extensively at Camp Pendleton in California. The treatment is extremely specific and targeted, thus making the practioner's experience and software invaluable. The best anology I can think of is related to the sports world is that neurofeedback is the closest there is to Physical Therapy for the brain. Like recovery from a knee injury, you do extremely specific exercises to strengthen the "muscles" and promote healing of the"ligaments". In this paradigm meditation is more analogous to full body calestenics and weight lifting. Normal day-to-day activity at a job juggling complex tasks would be similar to performing in a competition or game. Physical Therapy->weighifting +conditioning-> competition=Neurofeedback->meditation->high function in occupation. Time well spent researching. Good luck to you and all the best of luck.
    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Trevor.

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This page was last updated on: September 14, 2017.