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The Extraordinary Healing Power of Mindfulness

Research reveals that for veterans with PTSD, meditation can be powerful medicine.


by Sarah Mahoney

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Mindfulness meditation, which has been emerging as its own sort of wonder drug for well over a decade, just earned itself some new stripes. A recent study finds it is effective in treating military veterans with PTSD, more beneficial (and longer lasting) than group therapy. And that, says Melissa A. Polusny, Ph.D., lead investigator, underscores its potential for more run-of-the-mill stress and anxiety.

The study, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is important because “while we have some very good first-line response treatments for PTSD,” Polusny says, including prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, “they don’t work well for everybody, and 30 to 50 percent of people don’t see any meaningful improvement. Many of them have difficulty even completing the course of therapy.”

Mindfulness, which has been steadily gaining fans in mainstream medicine since the early 1990s, “has been proven to be helpful in stress reduction as well as many other areas, including chronic pain,” she says. The idea is simple: “The goal of mindfulness is to teach individuals how to attend to the thoughts and feelings of the present moment, even when they’re uncomfortable. And since avoidance of uncomfortable feelings is part of the problem in PTSD, we thought it would be well suited for our research.”

A hundred and sixteen vets with PTSD were randomly divided into two groups. The mindfulness group took one 2.5-hour class per week for eight weeks, getting instructions in mindfulness, plus a day-long retreat at the end of the nine-week period. A control group participated in nine 1.5-hour weekly group therapy sessions, where they discussed problems and issues in their current life.

See also: Change Your Brain With Meditation

Polusny, a staff psychologist and clinician investigator for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, admits she was skeptical. But the results were significant. “We expected both groups to improve, and they did. But the gaps made by the mindfulness group were stronger at the two-month mark, both in terms of improved PTSD symptoms and quality of life.” 

The results are good news for veterans with PTSD, which includes as many as 23% of those who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and as many as 31% of those who served in Vietnam. But it’s also good news for anyone looking to lower stress levels, “because we used the same basic approach to teaching mindfulness that you would find in most places.” Following the approach introduced by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, “this is the form of mindfulness that is most commonly taught, and is widely available. We didn’t use a special version.” (Listen to Kabat-Zinn discuss the healing power of mindfulness, or check out a popular introduction to a 10-minute mindfulness approach by Andy Puddicumbe, Headspace founder.)

While Polusny went into the study with reservations, she says the results changed her mind. “I wasn’t a meditator when I began this research, and I was pretty skeptical,” she says. “But this changed my mind, and I’ve started practicing myself.”