How meditation can ease PTSD symptoms
There are abundant misconceptions about meditation. Including that it always involves clearing your mind, in silence, to create spiritual enlightenment. The stereotypical meditative pose is sitting crossed-legged on the floor, with your hands either in a prayer position or resting on your knees with fingers poised upwards.
Meditation is, in fact, far more variable and flexible. You can even do it ‘on the move’!
In essence, it’s a series of steps to create heightened awareness, focus and calmness.
This makes meditation a valuable psychotherapeutic technique. Including to help people cope with PTSD and other mental health conditions. It can give individuals better control of their minds and emotions, using a series of tasks, such as deep breathing.
This article explores the science behind meditation and its application for PTSD.
The brain and meditative state
It’s not surprising that so many religions and cultures have incorporated meditation into their practices over the centuries, as its values are rooted in human physiology. Our brain and neurological system are complex, and in many respects still a scientific mystery! However, meditation primarily impacts on the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.
The prefrontal cortex is our information conduit. It processes stimulation from all our senses and sorts it accordingly. Including setting goals and actions. From a meditative state, your prefrontal cortex sends important information to your amygdala. This is an almond-shaped area on both sides of your brain’s base. The amygdala processes emotional responses and creates associations and reactions.
To illustrate the interplay between the two, if your prefrontal cortex receives information about a loud bang, your amygdala may automatically associate this information with fear of harm. It can take longer for logic to catch up with this immediate emotional reaction.
With meditation, you interrupt some of these associations and responses and create a sense of calm.
Types of meditation therapy
The main types of meditation involve relative or absolute practices.
With relative meditation, the onus is on visualisations, affirmations and relaxation techniques. This all soothes the neural structures in the brain that deal with emotional behaviour. Meditation builds positive emotions and associations and restores equilibrium and resilience.
For example, spoken affirmations (phrases such as ‘I am safe and happy’ or ‘I am worthy and loved’) stimulate your prefrontal cortex to send positive information to your amygdala.
It’s also possible to use visualisation to retrain the amygdala to take responses into a safe place. (This is like the Havening Technique, covered in this article LINK). For instance, the loud noise becomes a firework party with the people you love. Or, when overly anxious, you visualise yourself walking on a tropical beach.
Absolute meditation is focused on mindfulness and exploring your ‘true self’. It can guide individuals with PTSD to explore their experiences in a state of relaxation and empowerment. Another category of absolute practice is ‘Compassion Meditation’ when the individual does exercises to focus on building empathy and caring.
Mindfulness v meditation
Is mindfulness another word for meditation? The short answer is no.
Meditation uses purposeful introspection to break negative emotional cycles and to create a sense of control and calm. This can include mindfulness meditation when the individual intensely focuses on their sense of self. In PTSD, the focus can be on accepting experiences and painful memories.
However, you can be mindful – aware and focused – without meditating. Such as purposeful walking, breathing or listening to music to switch off from all other stimulation. It’s a valuable way to deliberately de-stress and ‘reboot’.
Meditation and PTSD
Use of meditation to ease PTSD symptoms is growing in acceptance and is the subject of clinical studies.
One study was conducted jointly by university researchers from the US and South Africa. They tested the effectiveness of transcendental meditation, to support South African students with a diagnosis of PTSD. Transcendental meditation uses patterns of sound (chanting) and mantras (repeated affirmations) to create serenity. It is one of the oldest forms of meditation, with its roots in spirituality.
The success was significant, reducing PTSD symptoms and improving depression. Research author Michael Dillbeck said: “Our study shows that after 3 months of meditation, the group, on average, was out of PTSD. It offers a way for others to effectively deal with this problem.”
The findings of a 2016 study into the ‘Impact of Transcendental Meditation on Psychotropic Medication Use Among Active Duty Military Service Members With Anxiety and PTSD’ were reported in the Military Medicine Journal.
Over 83% of trial participants reduced or even stopped using psychotropic drugs for PTSD, after one month. Compared to around 59% in a control group who were not meditating.
The importance of guided meditation in PTSD
This all adds to evidence that meditation not only calms and relaxes but also helps to heal.
However, it needs to be part of a programme of PTSD support. Particularly as meditation can leave too much ‘headspace’ for flashbacks and panic attacks in some individuals. Therapists and counsellors with expertise in PTSD can guide people towards meditation in relation to trauma.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
Bandy CL, Dillbeck MC, Sezibera V, et al. Reduction of PTSD in South African University Students Using Transcendental Meditation Practice. Psychological Reports. 2020;123(3):725-740. doi:10.1177/0033294119828036
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.