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.