A new study done at the University of California in San Diego and the Naval Health Research Center points to the benefits of using the practice of mindfulness to reduce stress in military personnel. Mental illnesses that the practice of meditation and mindfulness can help with are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and forms of anxiety.
Put simply, mindfulness is the practice of becoming conscious of your internal and external environment. It is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting the existing feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding activity. Today, it is often used as a therapeutic practice among therapists and psychologists to treat their clients.
Daniel Siegel, Director of The Mindsight Institute at UCLA and author of the book, The Mindful Brain, has been studying the effects of meditation on the brain for over 20 years. He has come to recognize that meditation and mindful awareness can alter brain function, mental activity, and interpersonal relationships. More importantly, Siegel has used mindfulness with his patients suffering from various mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of stress.
Essentially, he uncovered that mindfulness practice could help those parts of the brain that regulate mood to grow and strengthen, stabilizing the mind and enabling his patients to achieve emotional equilibrium and resilience. Mindful awareness, wrote Siegel, in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, can directly stimulate the growth of those clusters of neurons called the resonance circuits, which enable resonance with others and self-regulation of moods.
“Mindfulness training won’t make combat easier,” said Dr. Martin Paulus, professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study, “but we think it can help Marines recover from stress and return to baseline functioning more quickly.” The study had Marines participate in an 8-week course on mindfulness, designed for those who perform in highly stressful environments, such as combat. The course included having Marines focus on parts of the body, becoming aware of parts that held tension, and learning ways for the body to balance itself.
In fact, the fastest way to move out of a stressful state is to become aware of one of your senses. In his wonderfully healing book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat Zinn details how returning attention to the senses (to the body) can immediately shift your experience. By smelling a scent, touching an object, or experiencing a bodily sensation, you remind yourself of the moment you are in versus an imaginary moment that is likely the source of uncomfortable and challenging emotions. The reliving of trauma (such as those experienced in combat) and its associated feelings is one of the main symptoms of PTSD. Shifting your experience to the present moment through the use of your senses can be an incredibly healing practice. And this is one of the primary benefits of mindful living. In fact, the study indicated that those Marines who were trained in mindfulness returned to their baseline functioning quicker than those who did not.
Of course, remembering to make this shift in attention is the challenge, particularly right in the middle of feeling heavy emotions. For this reason, making this sort of shift must become a practice, one that you are able to do more and more quickly when stressful feelings arise. Making this shift of attention right in the middle of feeling stress is the way that change and healing takes place.
Lori Haase, co-author of the study, reported, “Mindfulness helps the body optimize its response to stress by helping the body interpret stressful events as bodily sensations. The brain adds less emotional affect to experiences and this helps with PTSD recovery.”
Mindfulness is a practice that can be supportive, regardless of age. It can benefit the body, mind, and heart, even if only practiced from time to time. Indeed, there are immediate benefits along with long-term, positive effects on life that bring satisfaction, joy, love, and fulfilling relationships.
Pedersen, T. (May 17, 2014). Mindfulness Training May Ease Combat Stress, Related Illness. PsychCentral. Retrieved on May 23, 2014 from: http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/17/mindfulness-training-may-ease-combat-stress-related-illness/69962.html