A U.S. soldier looks
through the scope of his weapon during a night patrol in Mandozai, in
Khost province, Afghanistan, seen through night vision equipment. About
400,000 veterans had a PTSD diagnosis in 2013, according to the Veterans
Affairs health system. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Carla K. Johnson
Meditation worked as well as traditional therapy
for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in a small
experiment sponsored by the Department of Defense.
One method preferred by the Department of Veterans
Affairs is exposure therapy, but it doesn’t work for everyone and many
can’t handle what it requires: purposely recalling traumatic events and
Meditation could be a better choice for some, the
The experiment tested meditation against exposure
therapy, which involves working with a therapist and gradually letting
go of fears triggered by painful memories.
Many vets won’t try exposure therapy or drop out
because it’s too difficult, said Thomas Rutledge, the study’s senior
author and a Veterans Affairs psychologist in San Diego.
Evidence for meditation “allows us to put more
options on the table” with confidence they work, Rutledge said.
The study was published Thursday in the journal
About 400,000 veterans had a PTSD diagnosis in
2013, according to the VA health system. The VA already is using
meditation, yoga and similar approaches to supplement traditional
therapy with PTSD, said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA’s
National Center for PTSD.
While the three-month study adds to evidence
supporting these lifestyle practices, Schnurr said, more research is
needed to learn how long meditation’s benefits last.
“There’s no follow-up in this study,” Schnurr
noted, and one therapist did 80 percent of the exposure therapy so the
findings hinge largely on one therapist’s skills.
Researchers measured symptoms in about 200 San
Diego area veterans randomly assigned to one of three groups. Some
learned to meditate. Others got exposure therapy. The third group
attended classes where they learned about nutrition and exercise.
All sessions were once a week for 90 minutes.
After three months, 61 percent of the meditation
group improved on a standard PTSD assessment, compared to 42 percent of
those who got exposure therapy and 32 percent of those who went to
classes. When researchers accounted for other factors, meditation was
better than the classes and equally effective as exposure therapy.
The researchers defined success as at least a
10-point improvement in scores on a standard symptoms test, given to
participants by people who did not know which kind of treatment they’d
received. The test measures symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and
PTSD also can be treated with medications or other
types of talk therapy. Many of the participants were taking prescribed
medicine for PTSD.
Most of the vets were men with combat-related
trauma, so it’s not clear whether meditation would be equally effective
in women or with other types of trauma.
There’s growing interest in meditation in the
United States. A government survey last year found 14 percent of adults
said they had recently meditated, up from 4 percent from a similar
survey five years earlier.
There are many styles of meditation. The type
taught to vets in the study was transcendental meditation, or TM, which
involves thinking of a mantra or sound to settle the mind.
TM was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru
to the Beatles in the late 1960s. Some of the study authors are
affiliated with a university in Fairfield, Iowa, founded by Maharishi.
Their role was to oversee the meditation training.
Rutledge, who was the principal researcher, said he
does not practice meditation himself.
Meditation could be more acceptable to veterans who
might associate mental health treatment with weakness, Rutledge said.
“It’s probably less threatening,” he said. “It may
be easier to talk to veterans about participating in something like