As I wrote in my last post (http://gutgotyoudown.com/ptsd-and-meditation/), various forms of meditation practice can be useful tools for navigating the challenging symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a disorder that affects many survivors of trauma of all kinds, but is a particular concern for a great many service members returning from the post-9/11 wars. It results in an alarming number of suicides among that part of the population.
Deep breathing is associated with most schools of meditation; this is a natural way to calm one’s nervous system. It rushes oxygen and nutrients to every part of the nervous system, relieving feelings of panic naturally.
Several schools of meditation stress focusing on the breath as it enters and leaves the lungs. The meditator’s awareness of what is going on in the here and now is heightened, an important skill for PTSD sufferers to develop. Flashbacks are typical of the disorder, in which sufferers relive the traumatic event in such startling real detail that dissociation with the present moment may occur. These dissociative episodes can be fought—and perhaps eventually overcome—with a regular meditation practice.
One need not use an ancient Sanskrit mantra to derive the benefits of meditation. One of the simplest prescriptions comes from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who has held numerous successful meditation retreats geared specifically toward combat veterans. On the in-breath, one says silently, Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. And on the exhalation, Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. This may seem almost absurdly simplistic, but as Nhat Hahn explains,
“When we breathe in and out mindfully, a miracle happens. Our minds and our bodies come together. Too often our bodies are here, but our minds are elsewhere. If we live in heedlessness, with our minds running to the future or lost in the past, we cannot find peace. Breathing in deep awareness, we bring our bodies and minds together as one.” 1
This concept–that the mind and body are an inseparable unity–is at the heart of all holistic, integrative medicine. For someone suffering from dissociative episodes, making this a regular practice can literally be a life-saver.
The deeply relaxed, yet highly alert, state attained by skilled meditators lowers blood pressure, counters the fight-or-flight response, and enhances mental clarity. For the service member reliving a traumatic firefight as if it is occurring in the present moment, all these benefits can be useful in gaining mastery over the symptoms of PTSD.
A number of sources of information on meditation and PTSD are available online; some of the most useful appear below.
1 The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hahn, Parallax Press, 1999