Meditation helps vets with post-traumatic stress disorder

In this Monday, April 21, 2008 file photo, a U.S soldier looks through the scope of his weapon during a night patrol in Mandozai, in Khost province, Afghanistan, seen through night vision equipment. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Meditation worked as well as traditional therapy for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in a small experiment sponsored by the Department of Defense.

One method preferred by the Department of Veterans Affairs is exposure therapy, but it doesn’t work for everyone and many can’t handle what it requires: purposely recalling traumatic events and confronting emotions.

Meditation could be a better choice for some, the researchers said.

The experiment tested meditation against exposure therapy, which involves working with a therapist and gradually letting go of fears triggered by painful memories.

Many vets won’t try exposure therapy or drop out because it’s too difficult, said Thomas Rutledge, the study’s senior author and a Veterans Affairs psychologist in San Diego.

Evidence for meditation “allows us to put more options on the table” with confidence they work, Rutledge said.

The study was published Nov. 15 in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

About 400,000 veterans had a PTSD diagnosis in 2013, according to the VA health system. The VA already is using meditation, yoga and similar approaches to supplement traditional therapy with PTSD, said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

While the three-month study adds to evidence supporting these lifestyle practices, Schnurr said, more research is needed to learn how long meditation’s benefits last.

“There’s no follow-up in this study,” Schnurr noted, and one therapist did 80 percent of the exposure therapy so the findings hinge largely on one therapist’s skills.

Researchers measured symptoms in about 200 San Diego area veterans randomly assigned to one of three groups. Some learned to meditate. Others got exposure therapy. The third group attended classes where they learned about nutrition and exercise.

All sessions were once a week for 90 minutes.

After three months, 61 percent of the meditation group improved on a standard PTSD assessment, compared to 42 percent of those who got exposure therapy and 32 percent of those who went to classes. When researchers accounted for other factors, meditation was better than the classes and equally effective as exposure therapy.

The researchers defined success as at least a 10-point improvement in scores on a standard symptoms test, given to participants by people who did not know which kind of treatment they’d received. The test measures symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia.

PTSD also can be treated with medications or other types of talk therapy. Many of the participants were taking prescribed medicine for PTSD.

Most of the vets were men with combat-related trauma, so it’s not clear whether meditation would be equally effective in women or with other types of trauma.

There’s growing interest in meditation in the United States. A government survey last year found 14 percent of adults said they had recently meditated, up from 4 percent from a similar survey five years earlier.

There are many styles of meditation. The type taught to vets in the study was transcendental meditation, or TM, which involves thinking of a mantra or sound to settle the mind.

TM was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru to the Beatles in the late 1960s. Some of the study authors are affiliated with a university in Fairfield, Iowa, founded by Maharishi. Their role was to oversee the meditation training.

Rutledge, who was the principal researcher, said he does not practice meditation himself.

Meditation could be more acceptable to veterans who might associate mental health treatment with weakness, Rutledge said.

“It’s probably less threatening,” he said. “It may be easier to talk to veterans about participating in something like meditation.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.