I have seen the benefits of meditation manifest in my own life, especially in regard to my recovery from addiction. As I was reflecting on how much it has helped me, I was wondering how wide reaching the benefits are. Specifically, are they available for people with other psychological difficulties? The short answer seems to be yes. In fact, a study that came out earlier this year by Heffner, Crean, and Kemp discussed how meditation is being used to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a psychological disorder in which the affected person experiences intrusive traumatic memories, avoidance of events that might trigger the trauma, negative feelings and thought patters, and heightened arousal. Not only veterans are effected by PTSD. I am sure many other people struggling with addiction have experienced a traumatic event that might trigger these symptoms. These thoughts and feelings can be difficult or impossible to cope with without help. In many cases the treatment offered is some kind of therapy or group support. While these treatments have been somewhat effective at reducing PTSD symptoms there is still more that can be done. Many Veteran Affairs centers have started implementing meditation as an additional or alternative treatment.
Veteran Affairs facilities tend to implement secular meditation programs, that are very closely tied to or based on the Buddhist practices that I do. Mainly, they teach mindfulness meditation and mantra meditation. Mindfulness meditation is taught such that veterans are asked to be in the present moment with a nonjudgemental awareness of what is happening. This is very similar to an open awareness meditation where you allow your awareness to rest on whatever it is most pulls to. This usually includes, sound, sight, feelings, tastes, smells, and thoughts. Rather than being pulled into the story of each of these you allow yourself to be aware and let the sensation pass. The mantra meditations taught by the VA are similar to many of the Buddhist heart practice meditations. In this case the person meditating might focus on silently repeating one word or phrase over an over. An example might simply be “I love you, keep going”. The study by Heffner, Crean, and Kemp did not provide specific examples of the mantras that people in this study used.
Researchers were interested in seeing if people who practiced these types of meditation had increased mindfulness and reduced PTSD symptoms. In order to address this question, they gathered information from six VA centers that had meditation programs. Some people were randomly assigned to complete an eight week meditation program and others were randomly assigned to complete a control program. The control program consisted of treatment as usual, where veterans would attend groups and therapy sessions. Everyone who participated took a number of measures before the meditation program began and after it ended. First they were asked to take a few psychological surveys to assess PTSD symptoms. Next they took a number of surveys about mindfulness which had to do with observing and describing experiences, and reacting calmly to inner experiences.
Researchers found that veterans who completed a meditation program had less PTSD symptoms when it ended compared to the control group who just received usual treatment. Researchers also found that veterans who did the meditation program had more improvement in mindfulness compared to the other group. This means that they were better able to observe and describe their feelings. They also reacted more calmly to inner experiences.
This recent research clearly demonstrates that meditation can be helpful even for people with psychological difficulties. It can even reduce the symptoms for people with PTSD. Although this study was not specifically talking about Buddhist meditation it did discuss meditation practices that are probably based on Buddhist meditation. After seeing how much Buddhist meditation has changed my own life, it is no surprise to me that it can be used to help veterans overcome extraordinary difficulties.
Info for the study may be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26752098