soldierWhen military service members return from combat, for many the battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) begins. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Naval Health Research Center tested whether a mindfulness class—training consisting of meditation and body awareness exercises—could reduce the symptoms of PTSD in U.S. Marines. They found that mindfulness training helped the Marines prepare for combat and decompress from stressful situations.

The study was conducted with four platoons of Marine infantrymen at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. The Marines completed an eight-week mindfulness course designed specifically for people in extremely stressful environments. The Marines learned about meditation, completed homework assignments, and trained on interoception (the ability to help the body regulate itself by being aware of bodily sensations). After the class, the Marines joined another group of Marines who had not received mindfulness training in a mock immersive combat training. The combat training took place in a staged rural village. There, the Marines patrolled, met with village leadership, and responded to a realistic ambush. Afterwards, the researchers gathered data on the Marines’ brain patterns using an MRI scan.

The Marines who trained in mindfulness before the combat had fewer physiological markers of stress. After the combat exercise, their heart and breathing rates returned to baseline levels faster than those who did not receive mindfulness training. The MRI revealed that the mindfulness-trained Marines had less activity in brain regions that control emotional reactivity, cognition, and interoception. High activity in these brain regions is typically linked with anxiety and mood disorders.

Mindfulness training may offer a way to help the military manage the levels of PTSD in returning veterans. Mindfulness therapy could also benefit people who experience high levels of stress due to disorders or other environmental factors.

“That we can re-regulate the activity in these areas with so little training is this study’s most significant finding. 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 stress recovery,” stated Martin Paulus, MD, professor of psychiatry and senior author.

This research is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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