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PTSD: Can Meditation Help?

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When you hear the term posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, you might think of a returning combat veteran who has flashbacks of being in battle. But PTSD isn’t something only veterans experience. The VA’s National Center for PTSD estimates that 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7%-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Many people have found that meditation can help with PTSD care.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health problem that some people have after going through a traumatic event, which might be anything from being in a car accident or surviving a natural disaster to being the victim of a violent crime or going through combat. Most people have some kind of stress reaction after trauma and feel upset, on edge, or have a hard time sleeping. But in most cases, the symptoms ease over time. But for some people, they can continue and get in the way of daily life.

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“Even though the event may have happened a long time ago, physiologically and psychologically, it’s as if it is still happening in that moment for that person,” says clinical psychologist Autumn Gallegos Greenwich, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “The body will react as if it’s in danger,” and that’s what keeps these symptoms going.

The four main symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the event
  • Avoiding places, situations, or people that remind you of the event
  • Feeling more negative than you used to and having a hard time being happy or having positive emotions. Many people with PTSD say they feel numb.
  • Feeling on edge. This symptom, called “hyperarousal,” means that it’s hard to relax, you startle easily, and you may be more angry and cranky than you used to be.

Can PTSD Be Treated?

Yes!

“In the past, when we were learning to treat PTSD, it was thought of as more of a chronic disorder that you had to learn to live with and manage the symptoms,” says Paula P. Schnurr, PhD, executive director of the National Center for PTSD and a professor of psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. “Now we know that many people will successfully recover from PTSD, especially with the right treatment. And it’s common to try more than one.”

Treatments may include prolonged exposure therapy, in which you work with a therapist to expose yourself in a safe way to the thoughts, feelings, and situations that you’ve been avoiding, and cognitive processing therapy, where you learn to identify and change negative thoughts. They are very effective in helping overcome PTSD. The National Center for PTSD has a decision tool to help find the right approach for you: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/apps/decisionaid/.

How Can Meditation Help?

Meditation is a mind-body practice that involves paying close attention to the present moment, combining concentration with awareness of your body, your breathing, your thoughts, and the sensations around you. It helps to focus, reduce stress, and increase calm. Meditation by itself isn’t a treatment for PTSD, but when used along with one of the treatment programs described above, or as an ongoing practice to help manage stress once you’ve gone through treatment, it can be very helpful.

“Training the attention is the first step,” says Gallegos Greenwich, who studies how mind-body practices affect posttraumatic stress symptoms. “In mindfulness meditation, you focus on the present moment. Not everything you’re feeling will be comfortable. Maybe you hear traffic. Maybe your body is uncomfortable. With mindfulness meditation, you notice how you’re feeling and stay in that still position, just allowing that feeling to be there and not needing to change or fight anything.”

“My patients who practice meditation and other kinds of mindfulness practices frequently report less irritability, less anger, and more of a sense of control,” says Shaili Jain, MD, a psychiatrist at the VA Palo Alto Health System in California who is affiliated with the National Center for PTSD. “They can slow down their reactions and be a bit more in control, more present and mindful rather than reactive.”

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Though not a lot of research has been done, a limited number of studies have shown that meditation improved symptoms of PTSD and depression. “As a clinician, I see meditation as a very powerful complement to therapy,” Jain says. “There certainly do not appear to be any adverse effects or down sides to meditation for PTSD.”

How can you find a meditation program that will work for you if you have PTSD? Gallegos Greenwich suggests searching for the terms “trauma-informed meditation” or “trauma-sensitive meditation.” “For people with PTSD, part of recovery is learning to feel in control again, so you want to work with a program that doesn’t insist that you close your eyes or sit a certain way.”

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If you are in therapy, Schnurr suggests asking your therapist to recommend a meditation class or app that they think might be helpful to you. “Many VA facilities offer meditation classes to support veterans care,” she says.

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The VA also offers a free Mindfulness Coach app to help you adopt a simple mindfulness practice, which is available to anyone, not just veterans. Other apps that experts recommend include Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier.

Just taking 5 minutes a day to work meditation into your routine can make a huge difference. “It’s not like antibiotics that you use to treat an infection until it’s over,” Schnurr says. “It’s an ongoing wellness practice that many people both with and without PTSD use in their lives every day.”

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