This has to be good news. Veterans Affairs (VA) researchers and fellow scientists are reporting some very promising results from a study based on – of all unlikely things – the use of meditation techniques to help relieve post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Believe it or not, the techniques are working.
The findings, as reported by researchers at the VA San Diego Healthcare system, appear online in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. The study’s lead author, nurse researcher Jill Bormann, PhD, RN, explained that war veterans were first taught to silently repeat to themselves a ‘mantram’ during any non-stressful times during the day and before falling asleep. The veterans were then instructed to use that same mantram when faced with stressful situations: flashbacks, physical pain, arguments, even traffic jams or crowds. Along with this technique came two others — mentally easing back and slowing down, and very deliberately doing just one thing at a time. All three techniques work together to promote a sense of inner control, calm and well-being – precisely what reliving a trauma so cruelly takes away.
Bormann defines a mantram as a “sacred, powerful word or phrase”, and the study participants were encouraged to choose mantrams that had personal relevance or meaning. She also noted the distinctions between ‘mantram’ and ‘mantra’. Mantra is generally used as a motto or affirmation. The idea of the mantram was developed by renowned Indian-born spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, and Bormann and her team tailored it to the specific needs of veterans.
All of the study participants, some 146 veterans, mostly men, of various ages, had service-related PTSD. They had already undergone standard treatment, including medication and case management. These particular veterans had not, however, yet undergone VA-sponsored psychotherapy, including prolonged exposure therapy.
The volunteers were randomly divided into two groups. One group participated in weekly classes where they learned the mantram method (known at the VA as the Mantram Repetition Program). When tested after six weeks, the researchers found that their mantram subjects showed more improvement than the standard-care group. The mantram method volunteers showed the biggest benefit in relieving the core PTSD symptoms of hyperarousal, depression, overall mental health-related quality of life and spiritual well-being.
Further, thirty percent of the mantram group participants no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, compared with 14 percent in the standard-care group – which is pretty impressive. Bormann’s prior studies with the technique had found positive benefits among veterans, family care-givers and VA employees. The VA recently extended funding for a new study of 324 veterans with PTSD that will compare the Mantram Repetition Program over eight weeks to another treatment called Present-Centered Group Therapy.
According to Bormann, the mantram repetition method differs from most relaxation and meditation techniques in that it can be used — discreetly — anytime, anywhere: while driving, while standing in line at the movies or grocery store, at a family gathering, whenever. As she noted, “it’s personal, portable and invisible. It’s a non-drug approach that is safe, immediately available, and inexpensive.”
And Bormann also believes it could be used in helping veterans while they undergo prolonged exposure therapy, a treatment during which patients are guided by therapists as they gently, gradually re-experience the painful emotions surrounding their trauma. Many veterans shy away from this treatment, but perhaps mantram repetition could give them a way to make it more tolerable.
The VA is also funding other meditation-based techniques in their quest to help veterans with PTSD. We feel very strongly that they are on the right track here, pursuing and supporting non-drug approaches that our besieged veterans can safely and effectively use for the rest of their lives. Traumas aren’t neat and well-behaved. They don’t go away simply because a few years have passed, or because we insist it’s time they fade back into the distance and stop reminding us of things painful or brutal or worse. No, traumas have their own agendas, their own schedules, their own protocols. Meeting their aftereffects with strength and resolve and calm — not denial and drugs on top of drugs and impatience — would seem to be a very modern, humane and responsible thing to do. Let’s hope the VA stays on track.
Special thanks to VA Research Currents, March – April, 2012.