STRESS
August 12, 2015

Mindfulness Training Eases PTSD

Mindfulness-based stress reduction helped ease veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress can linger for decades and totally disrupt a person’s life. It is estimated that about a quarter of soldiers coming back from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Roughly 271,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer from PTSD symptoms 40 years after returning home.

Though some treatments for the disorder exist, and there is some promising research, no one treatment is likely to be effective for everyone. PTSD often brings with it other mental health disorders, like depression and addiction, so finding treatments that work can help on many levels.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) appears to help ease veterans' PTSD symptoms, a new study finds. In MBSR, the goal is to reduce a person’s stress levels by learning to attend to one’s thoughts and experiences in new ways, without judging or resisting, but rather, just accepting them.

For those who’d had done the MBSR training, 49% experienced a significant improvement in symptom severity versus only 28% in the present-centered group therapy.

The researchers randomly assigned half of the participants, 116 veterans who had been diagnosed with PTSD, to receive eight sessions of MBSR. The participants in this group were taught three forms of meditation: one was a body scan, which involves focusing on the different parts of the body, one by one; another was a sitting meditation in which participants learn to observe their thoughts in new and nonjudgmental ways; and a third was mindful yoga, which involves yoga movements directed to the body in various ways. In addition, they also did a daylong silent retreat.

The other half of the participants were assigned to a therapy called present-centered group therapy, in which they discuss in a group setting the current problems in their lives.

Two months after the respective treatments, the participants were asked about what PTSD symptoms they were still experiencing and how severe they were. For those who’d done the MBSR training, 49% experienced a significant improvement in symptom severity versus only 28% in the present-centered group therapy.

When it came to “loss of diagnosis” (that is, whether they were no longer diagnosable as having PTSD), however, there was no significant difference between the two groups — 53% of participants in the MBSR group versus 47% in the present-centered group therapy group qualified for loss of diagnosis — so both forms are effective in about half the participants.

One caveat in the current study is that the average age of the veterans was 58, most having served in the Vietnam War, so it’s unclear how or if the results might be different in younger veterans. And people with PTSD not related to war would also need to be included in future studies.

But, in the meantime, mindfulness-based stress reduction may be worth trying. It may not be a cure-all for PTSD, but it's another tool to help manage symptoms over the long-term, and maybe even help them disappear.

The study was carried out at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
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