Post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) is a mental health issue where the echoes of a traumatic event reverberate around the lives of those affected, causing profound emotional distress long after the danger has passed.
It is often characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, high anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. PTSD has a huge impact on those who live with the illness, and it is often challenging to treat.
While traditional methods of talk therapy and pharmaceutical intervention play an important role in the management of PTSD, a newly released study has strengthened already robust evidence that suggests mindfulness can help us unlearn fear.
This has encouraging implications for the potential of this technique to help people affected by PTSD, and even be a part of achieving a full recovery.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Society
PTSD affects around 3.5 percent of the U.S. population, or approximately 8 million Americans, in a given year.
Roughly one in three people go on to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, and a variant of PTSD (known as complex post traumatic stress disorder) can impact those who have suffered ongoing trauma, such as childhood abuse.
It is still not understood why some people go on to suffer with this mental health issue while others largely recover from distressing experiences.
When we experience or witness a life-threatening, violent, or otherwise traumatic event, our nervous system will activate a defensive biobehavioral response – an instinctive survival mode. This can take the form of “fight-or-flight” or “shutdown-and-freeze,” and it can feel as frighteningly overwhelming as the traumatic event itself.
For people who go on to develop PTSD, this stress response appears to dysregulate the autonomic nervous system and cause cognitive changes which disrupt the normal processing of memories and emotions.
People with PTSD live with a hyperarousal of the body’s survival mode, experiencing constant high-alert and even changes to their brain structure if the condition goes untreated.
Treatments for PTSD
The treatment of PTSD includes a variety of strategies, including:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): A talking therapy where patients talk through their traumatic experiences, processing their memories and any associated feelings with a therapist
- Prolonged Exposure (PE): A technique where people relive the experience in a safe environment until the memories are no longer so powerful and life-changing
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A talking therapy that aims to help people become aware of and change negative thought patterns
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): A nontraditional (and somewhat controversial) form of psychotherapy designed to diminish negative feelings associated with memories of traumatic events
- Medication: The antidepressants paroxetine and sertraline are licensed specifically for the treatment of PTSD, and older classes of antidepressants such as mirtazapine and amitriptyline have also been found helpful in some cases. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax are also widely used to reduce PTSD-related anxiety, but studies suggest they are ultimately unhelpful and may even be harmful
Mindfulness for PTSD
Mindfulness is described as “the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and other training.”
Mindfulness has been pursued for thousands of years in a variety of contexts, but it is perhaps most traditionally associated with Buddhism, and in particular Buddhist monks.
In recent years, the benefits of mindfulness have become much more well-known, and with the advent of apps like Headspace and Calm, the practice has widely been exposed to the mainstream.
People have used mindfulness to reduce daily stress and anxiety, but there is a growing interest in how the technique can be used clinically to help people with a variety of health issues.
With PTSD, people are often disturbingly removed from the present moment through flashbacks and the experience of extreme anxiety to the memories and feelings of their trauma.
This happens through events or stimuli known as triggers – a familiar example is that of a war veteran who is triggered by the sound of fireworks. They can become preoccupied with unpleasant thoughts, and find it difficult to shift their thinking.
Here Are 5 Ways That Mindfulness for PTSD Can Help:
Mindfulness for PTSD can help people with these symptoms in a variety of ways:
1. Creates Present Moment Awareness
To reconnect with the now, and bring themselves outside of the narrative within their minds to the world that exists around them.
A skill people learn with mindfulness is to focus their attention on one thing at a time, and allow other thoughts to pass by at a nonjudgemental distance. This develops both their ability to recognize and stop negative thought spirals, and grow their self-compassion.
2. Changes the Brain
An exciting study found through brain imaging that mindfulness meditation can lead to positive changes in neural functioning, including the reduction in size of the amygdala and increased hippocampal volume – two parts of the brain negatively affected by PTSD.
3. Trains Thought Patterns
A study which took 23 male veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq treated half with Mindfulness-Based Exposure Therapy and discovered changes in activity in regions of the brain associated with mind-wandering and purposeful shifting of attention.
These changes suggested that mindfulness helped veterans train themselves out of negative thought spirals.
4. Reduces Stress Symptoms
Another study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that a group of service veterans who practiced yoga – an activity which is overtly mindful – demonstrated reduced PTSD symptoms, breathed slower, and were less anxious than the control group.
Another, which took place at the University of Toronto, put 80 individuals living with PTSD on an eight-week yoga program. This study discovered that the participants experienced reduced symptoms of PTSD, slept better, were less stressed, less anxious, and more resilient than the control group.
5. Helps “Unlearn” Fears
More recently, researchers administered mild electric shocks to volunteers while showing them a slideshow of images. When shown the images again, researchers measured an arousal of their fear response, as they had learned to associate them with discomfort.
However, those who later underwent a mindfulness program no longer exhibited this fear when presented with the images again. This strongly suggested that mindfulness helped them “unlearn” this fear.
The Takeaway on Mindfulness for PTSD
The psychiatrist and author, Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, famously said: “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”
Post traumatic stress disorder is a challenging condition to live with, but thankfully modern science’s intermingling with ancient wisdom is showing us that there are effective ways to manage and cope with past stressors.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to use in our everyday lives and it can be even more powerful for those who are living with PTSD.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.