Meditation Heals Military Vets With PTSD

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

ByABC News
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."