Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the scourge of the veterans, is a real illness. Seemingly without an off-switch, it can replay terrible thoughts and memories over and over again in the patients’ minds.
Mindfulness – a mind-body technique focusing on in the moment attention and awareness – offers a ray of hope to PTSD sufferers, with a new study showing how it could change veterans’ brains and help them find the off-switch to that endless loop of negative memories.
Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System studied 23 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They split them into two groups assigned to different forms of therapy: nine participants received regular therapy such as problem solving and group support, while 14 of them were given mindfulness training.
The mindfulness group saw greater improvements in symptoms through decreased ratings on the standard PTSD scale. While many reported easing symptoms, the mindfulness group revealed surprising brain changes.
"The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being ‘stuck' in painful cycles of thoughts," says Anthony King, the study's lead researcher.
Before the mindfulness practice, the veterans’ brains had excess activity in regions involved in threat or external stress response – signifying the endless loop of thoughts in PTSD. However, based on functional MRI results after they learned mindfulness, their brain networks, those involved in thoughts and that of directing and shifting attention, developed stronger connections.
At the end of the two-hour, weekly mindfulness course for four months, the mindfulness group showed increased brain connections, particularly the area leading one to purposely move attention to think or act upon something. Those with the greatest relief grew the most brain connections.
These findings, said King, offers the potential to help PTSD patients who might initially reject therapy that involves trauma processing, allowing them to regulate their emotions and better process their traumas.
“[Mindfulness] helps them feel more grounded, and to notice that even very painful memories have a beginning, a middle and an end – that they can become manageable and feel safer,” he adds.
King reminded, however, not to use mindfulness in isolation and to seek out providers specially trained in PTSD management. Mindfulness sessions, for instances, can sometimes trigger a flare-up of symptoms, making trained expertise necessary.
The findings were published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Among Iraq War veterans alone, 11 to 20 percent are afflicted with PTSD symptoms every year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These include concentration problems, extreme sensitivity to all sounds, nightmares, fear, and disorientation.
A study in the Netherlands in 2015 warned that PTSD can exhibit a spike of recurrence even five years after soldiers returned home from being deployed in Afghanistan, making long-term recurrence a more critical aspect of care.