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How meditation helps those overcome PTSD

Meditation is a technique that goes back thousands of years. Due to the limited success of conventional treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), breathing-based meditation treatment has presented itself as a significant alternative approach.

Emma Seppala, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and lead author, examined the effects of a breathing-based meditation intervention, Sudarshan Kriya yoga, on PTSD outcome variables in U.S. male veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

PTSD, which affects about one in five veterans, typically emerges through the experience of a horrifying or life-threatening event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. PTSD affects around 7.7 million Americans aged 18 and older.

Returning veterans battling PTSD have extremely high suicide rates, Seppala said.

Seppala further elaborated that traditional treatments such as medication and therapy have not always been rendered effective, resulting in many veterans to drop out of such programs. Many veterans also fear a stigma associated with seeking traditional mental health services.

Seppala and her colleagues examined 21 American veterans. Other studies have shown that Sudarshan Kriya –which includes breathing exercises alongside periods of discussion and stretching – to be effective in treating anxiety, addiction and depression.

The 21 participants got together for three-hour sessions over the course of seven days. Researchers measured eye-blink responses to loud noises, respiration rates and self-reported descriptions of participants’ PTSD symptoms. Assessments were taken at four intervals – before, during, one month later and one year after the treatment.

The active group showed reductions in PTSD scores, anxiety symptoms and respiration rate, but the control group did not.

“Sudarshan Kriya yoga showed the strongest effect on hyperarousal and the re-occurrence of traumatic memories and nightmares,” Seppala and her co-authors stated.

The most surprising finding was the enduring effects of meditation.

“It is unusual to find the benefits of a very short intervention – one-week, 21 hours total – lasting one year later,” she said. One year after the study, the participants’ PTSD scores still remained low, depicting a long-lasting improvement.

When the veterans were asked about whether they had continued practicing at home, a few admitted doing so, but most had not. The data illustrated meditation’s long-term benefits whether or not they had practiced at home.

One reason for this that Seppala suggested was that Sudarshan Kriya yoga carries the possibility of retraining the veterans’ memories.

Prior to the breathing meditation training, participants reported re-experiencing traumatic memories in frequent and intense episodes, Seppala reported. Afterwards though, they explained that the traumatic memories no longer influenced them in the same fashion.

While most veteran studies see large dropout rates, most of the veterans in Seppala’s study stuck to the program.

The American Journal of Psychiatry had already begun documenting studies that proved existing correlations between meditation and successful recovery from as long ago as the 1970s. Meditation has proved to be effective in treatment for substance use disorders as well

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