Meditation Heals Military Vets With PTSD

Studies suggest meditation eases symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

June 3, 2011, 3:29 PM

June 6, 2011— -- For months, David George, 27, of Fairfield, Iowa, had been eyeing a pistol he saw at a local store.

In 2004, shortly after returning from Iraq, the former specialist in the 101st Airborne Division moved into his parents' home in Maryland. At every noise, George, who owned a rifle, systematically moved from one room to the next to make sure the house was clear. The pistol, he thought, would make it easier.

"But I didn't buy it, because I knew if I brought it home I'd shoot myself," he said.

George struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of anxiety that develops after enduring a traumatic experience.

For five years, George underwent stints of medication and talk therapy, both intended to quell his PTSD symptoms. But neither method worked for him, he said.

"It [the medications] helped make me not who I am. It took away my creativity, my personality, my ability to care about anything," said George. "The one-on-ones were like, why am I talking to someone who has no idea what I've been through."

Until one day in 2009, while participating in a research session on transcendental meditation, George sat still for 20 minutes and focused on repeating a mantra.

"From the first time I did it, I knew it was what I would do for the rest of my life," said George. "It was the first time I felt quiet in my mind for five years."

Transcendental meditation is a mind-based practice that involves focusing on a particular phrase, word or image to bring focus to individual thoughts.

And preliminary research suggests that this form of meditation can be helpful in relieving symptoms of PTSD among combat veterans.

"One of aspect of PTSD is that the whole fight or flight response system is on overdrive. These people will be easy to agitate when something triggers a memory," said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School, and author of a study on transcendental meditation and PTSD published in Military Medicine in June 11.

Studies show transcendental meditation increases activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which regulates emotions.

"It certainly does make sense that it would help in PTSD patients, since it's often used for stress and anxiety," said Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who was not involved in the study.

"We've always been really surprised by how much people like these practices. But the big question is whether it relieves the symptoms, or really does help with PTSD as a whole," said Newberg.

More than 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

But many veterans with PTSD do not seek treatment for their symptoms, possibly because of the stigma of mental illness and its potential impact on career advancement, Rosenthal said.

"The study demonstrated feasibility in doing it with a limited number of people and at low cost," said Rosenthal, author of the book "Transcendence." "It can be sustained independently. It can be done outside of the system." George, who said he previously did not meditate, initially believed meditation was "hokey."

"It was a familiar attitude as what we have in the infantry," said George. But he said meditation made him feel more in charge of his well-being than than other treatments had. "I felt that if I wanted to overcome this, I needed to do it myself."

More than 350 studies have been published showing positive effects of transcendental meditation, including its ability to lower blood pressure, and help treat depression. But Rosenthal's research -- which looked at seven patients -- is one of only two others to evaluate the affects of meditation on soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"When you see this dramatic impact, you have to be asking this question, why aren't we doing more of this," said Rosenthal.

George was among the first troops to enter Iraq in 2003. While mobilized to a town north of Baghdad, insurgents detonated a car packed with explosives next to the compound where George's unit was housed. According to George, that incident "kicked everything off."

"I started hearing the screams. Listening to all my friends suffer, that sticks in my mind," said George. "That's what really broke me."

George couldn't tell others about the event without tearing up and sweating.

"If I died in a motorcycle accident then, people would've thought, "Oh yeah, that's him." It would've been passive suicide," said George. "But once I had that clarity in my head, I could see what's happened to me since I came home."

A year into practicing meditation, George could calmly recount the incident in Iraq.

While meditation worked for George's diagnosis, the levels of the condition could differ depending on the soldier, said Newberg.

There's not enough evidence to suggest this practice could work for all soldiers with PTSD, said Newberg.

Still, George said that more soldiers would take to meditation if they knew of others who practice. George, who now works in part with Operation Warrior Wellness -- a program initiated by the David Lynch Foundation -- is now committed to get 30,000 veterans to practice meditation within the next three years.

"I know combat. I know what hell is. I know what it's like when you get home," said George.