Mindfulness Therapy Can Aid Vets with PTSD

By Rick Naurert PhD
February 27th, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.

Mindfulness Therapy Can Aid Vets with PTSDRecent military conflicts have resulted in a dramatic increase in post-traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers. Now, new research suggests a mindfulness-based group treatment plan can significantly reduce symptoms.

The collaborative study from the University of Michigan Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System discovered the eight-week mindfulness-based group treatment plan was more effective than traditional treatment.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, combines the practice of cognitive therapy with the meditative approach of mindfulness that stresses an increased awareness of all thoughts and emotions.   Mindfulness exercises include meditation, stretching, and acceptance of thoughts and emotions.

Prior studies have demonstrated that stress reduction classes that use mindfulness meditation have been beneficial to people with a history of trauma exposure, including veterans, civilians with war-related trauma and adults with a history of childhood sexual abuse.

The current study is the first to examine the effect of mindfulness-based psychotherapy for PTSD with veterans in a PTSD clinic.

“The results of our trial are encouraging for veterans trying to find help for PTSD,” says Anthony P. King, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.

“Mindfulness techniques seemed to lead to a reduction in symptoms and might be a potentially effective novel therapeutic approach to PTSD and trauma-related conditions.”

Veterans in the mindfulness treatment groups participated in in-class exercises such as mindful eating, in which they focus on sensations associated with eating very slowly and “body scanning,” an exercise where patients focus on physical sensations in individual parts of the body, paying special attention to pain and tension.

Additional therapeutic activities included mindful movement and stretching, and mindfulness meditation, in which distracting thoughts and feelings are not ignored but instead acknowledged as they arise and observed nonjudgmentally.

The participants were also instructed to practice mindfulness at home through audio-recorded exercises and during the day while doing activities such as walking, eating and showering.

After eight weeks of treatment, 73 percent of patients in the mindfulness group displayed meaningful improvement compared to 33 percent in the treatment-as-usual groups.

King says the most noticeable area of improvement for patients in the mindfulness group was a reduction in avoidance symptoms.

One of the main tenets of mindfulness therapy is a sustained focus on thoughts and memories, even ones that might be unpleasant.

“Part of the psychological process of PTSD often includes avoidance and suppression of painful emotions and memories, which allows symptoms of the disorder to continue,” King said. “Through the mindfulness intervention, however, we found that many of our patients were able to stop this pattern of avoidance and see an improvement in their symptoms.”

Mindfulness techniques also emphasize focus and attention to positive experiences and nonjudgmental acceptance to one’s thoughts and emotions.

Because of this, the researchers found that the patients in the mindfulness group experienced a decrease in feelings of self-blame and a trend toward decreased perception of the world as a dangerous place.

Researchers say that although the results of this pilot study are encouraging, additional studies with a larger sample size are needed to fully understand the benefits of mindfulness intervention.

King added that the UM-VA group is currently conducting a larger study including military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Further studies will help us understand whether mindfulness training is more aptly considered an adjunct option to gold-standard trauma-focused treatments such as prolonged exposure or EMDR, or whether it can function as an intervention in its own right for treating avoidance and other symptoms,” he says.

“Either way, mindfulness-based therapies provide a strategy that encourages active engagement for participants, are easy to learn and appear to have significant benefits for veterans with PTSD.”

Study results are published online in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

Source: University of Michigan

Dr. Rick Naurert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Naurert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.