Panic attacks. Nightmares and flashbacks. The fight-or-flight response. Dissociative episodes and suicidal thoughts. These are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This disorder affects many survivors of traumatic events of all kinds, but has taken a particularly serious toll on military personnel returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Soldiers in combat experience the kind of sustained terror, life-and-death situations, and violence that provide a “perfect storm” of sorts for the development of PTSD. A great many North American veterans of the post-9/11 wars have been diagnosed with the disorder, and the U.S. Veteran’s Affairs Department estimates that the country is losing returning service members to suicide at the alarming rate of one every day. Clearly, PTSD is a very serious condition that’s going to pose mental health challenges for quite some time. In upcoming posts, we’ll be looking at the unique contributions integrative medicine can make to the treatment of this condition. We begin by taking a quick look at the effect meditation can have on PTSD sufferers.
Meditation is an ancient art, a reliable and natural means of accessing a calm and lucid mental state. Practiced for millennia by monks in the pre-scientific era, it has recently been subjected to empirical studies that have confirmed its efficacy. It is also now being put to use by mental health professionals specializing in easing the overwhelming thoughts, uncontrolled feelings, and psychosomatic symptoms that plague those suffering from PTSD.
Mindfulness meditation enables practitioners to observe their inner worlds–with all their quickly arising and passing moods and emotional states—without becoming attached to them. This is particularly important for PTSD sufferers, because they often feel little “daylight” between their mental states and their sense of identity. The returning combat soldier in the midst of a serious flashback may genuinely believe (in that moment) that he is back behind enemy lines. In severe PTSD cases, the line between memory and immediate experience becomes not just blurred, but obliterated. In addition to medication and counseling, a regular meditation practice can help to reduce the frequency and severity of these dissociative episodes.
More on meditation and PTSD in the next post!