Meditation Reduces Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms

Transcendental Meditation can reduce PTSD symptoms and use of medications.

Posted Jan 13, 2016

 Vitalii Bashkatov/Shutterstock
Source: Vitalii Bashkatov/Shutterstock

A new study reports that regular practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) enables some active duty service members battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to reduce, or even eliminate, their use of psychotropic medications and to better control the often-debilitating symptoms of PTSD. 

Transcendental Meditation is a specific type of focused meditation that takes practitioners from a state of noisy thinking to a state of inner quietness. Practicing TM reduces stress hormones by activating the "tend-and-befriend" or "rest-and-digest" functions of the parasympathetic nervous system, while calming the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the "fight-or-flight" response.

The January 2016 study, “Impact of Transcendental Meditation on Psychotropic Medication Use Among Active Duty Military Service Members With Anxiety and PTSD,” was published in the journal Military Medicine.

This study included 74 active-duty service members with PTSD or anxiety disorder. Many of the participants had experienced multiple deployments in recent years and were seeking treatment for PTSD at Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center's Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

For this study, half of the service members voluntarily practiced Transcendental Meditation regularly in addition to their other therapy; the other half did not. After one month, 83.7% of the meditators had stabilized and reduced, or stopped their use of psychotropic drugs to treat their PTSD conditions. Only 10.9% had increased their medication dosages.

On the flip side, of those who didn’t meditate, only 59.4% had stabilized and reduced, or stopped, taking psychotropic drugs for PTSD. Unfortunately, 40.5% of participants who weren't meditating actually began taking higher dosages of medication. Similar percentages were found in the following months and in a six-month follow up.

In a press release, Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, a physiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and the study's lead author, said, "Regular practice of Transcendental Meditation provides a habit of calming down and healing the brain.” Barnes teaches Eisenhower's TBI Clinic patients how-to do TM, which he recommends be practiced for 20 minutes, twice a day.

Can Transcendental Meditation Help Veterans Coping with TBI and PTSD?

JohnGomez/Shutterstock
Source: JohnGomez/Shutterstock

A few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “The Neuroscience of Fear Responses and Post-Traumatic Stress,” based on two recent studies on PTSD. In response to that post, a veteran using the alias "Wounded Warrior"—who is suffering from the repercussions of both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD—shared his personal story in the comments. Below is the comment he posted in the Psychology Today public forum:

"I had many events during my combat deployment to Iraq. Several ID strikes and firefights. I sustained a severe penetrating TBI and several other injuries by a suicide bomber in my final encounter. My PTSD seems to be a pure physical reaction. Even an unexpected drop of something on the floor causes my adrenaline to spike and heart rate to increase.

My TBI was fairly significant. Had to have a large decompressive craniectomy and temporal resection. I have many cognitive deficits, both emotional and functional. Yet, as displayed by this comment my intellectual function was retained somehow.

I have read many research articles but I still haven't pieced together the entire relationship. As you mentioned, the Amygdala plays such a huge role. I think I am trapped in Fight mode but how much is due to TBI vs repeated trauma exposure. Maybe it's just a perfect storm.

Medication is no help it only trapped me in REM sleep and my wife wasn't able to wake me during a severe "acting out" nightmare. I am at a loss for treatment. I have been treated by the expert Neuro psychiatrist at Walter Reed. I am still searching for that relief that may come with time.”

When I read about the new study on TM this morning, the first thing that came to mind was the powerful testimonial of ‘Wounded Warrior' and his difficulty finding viable treatments for coping with PTSD. Maybe TM can be of some help? Wounded Warrior, thank you again for sharing your PTSD experience with myself and other readers.

Wounded Warrior is not alone. When soldiers come home from a war, many are in a hyperactive state that leaves them in a constant state of "fight-or-flight," making them anxious, irritable, and prone to overreacting to a wide range of stimuli that triggers a stress response.

Many of the patients in this study had multiple concussions that occurred in the heat of combat. According to the study's senior author, Dr. John L. Rigg, headaches, memory, sleep, and mood issues are the big four symptoms following a concussion.

Rigg is the program director of the military hospital's TBI Clinic, one of the largest of its kind in the nation. His program offers an intensive outpatient approach in which service members with mild brain injuries can learn skills to help with their PTSD. In a press release, Rigg said,

"Concussions heal, but this is a unique concussion because it happened when somebody was trying to kill them. It's not like you or I were riding bikes on the weekend and fell down and hit our head. There is significant emotional trauma, hyperarousal of basic instincts of survival. They are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, which is being in an environment where somebody is trying to kill them on a daily basis.

Even going to a crowded restaurant for dinner can be problematic, with the echo of the 24-hour warzone mantra "strangers are dangers" replaying in their head. In this hypervigilant state of mind, a soldier might be inclined to get a table where he can sit with his back to the wall and monitor other patrons' comings and goings rather than the conversation his partner is trying to have with him."

Rigg has worked at Eisenhower since 2008. He quickly realized that PTSD medications, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, often weren't successful in helping active duty personnel struggling with PTSD. Rigg went in pursuit of non-pharmacologic options to treat PTSD.

His friend, former Kansas City Royals shortstop Buddy Biancalana, told him about the work of the David Lynch Foundation's Operation Warrior Wellness, which teaches Transcendental Meditation to veterans . . . David Lynch Foundation Director of Research Dr. Sarina Grosswald put Rigg in touch with Barnes.

In early 2012, Eisenhower Army Medical Center added Transcendental Meditation to their roster of treatments for PTSD. There was some skepticism among service members at first—but after regularly practicing Transcendental Meditation—soldiers began to report that they felt less irritable, slept better, and their relationships were improving. The clinic currently has a waiting list for the TM course.

Conclusion: Health Care Providers Need to Support Integrative Medicine

mavo/Shutterstock
Practicing Transcendental Meditation dramatically reduces PTSD symptoms and medication dosages.
Source: mavo/Shutterstock

The researchers note that health care providers are often hesitant to reduce medication dosage in PTSD patients because they’re not certain whether the stabilization is due to meditation or medication. However, previous studies, including a 1985 study with Vietnam Veterans, showed that soldiers who practiced Transcendental Meditation instead of taking medication experienced significantly reduced PTSD symptoms.

Also, the researchers point out that the positive response rates for psychotropic medications used to treat PTSD and anxiety disorders is only about 30 percent. Treatment success of pharmaceuticals is often complicated by brain injury, drug abuse, along with sleep and mood disorders. Psychotropic medications also have a wide range of potential side effects including exacerbating memory loss, erectile dysfunction, and depression. Transcendental Meditation has zero known adverse side effects.

Finding the optimal therapy combinations for PTSD that include mindfulness and meditation practices should be a top priority for policymakers, insurance companies, and healthcare providers. Prolonged wars, and multiple tours of duty, have left millions of active duty and veteran personnel struggling with enduring emotional aftershocks and PTSD. 

To read more about this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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