People who are exposed to distressing events can go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This mental health condition was first brought to light by veterans of the Vietnam War and it continues to persist in both the armed forces and the rest of society. The growing problem of PTSD has led to a number of treatments, but which one works best? A recent study suggests mindfulness-based therapy may ease PTSD symptoms in veterans.
Veterans are particularly vulnerable to PTSD, which currently affects 23% of those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Researchers note in the study that though the U.S. government is heavily invested in providing treatment, 30% to 50% of veterans participating fail to show clinically significant improvements.
"Thus, research aimed at testing novel treatments for PTSD in this population is important," the researchers note in their study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association
For the study, 116 veterans were recruited in 2012 and 2013. Researchers randomly assigned one group of veterans to undergo mindfulness-based stress reduction.
"Mindfulness is a way of being in touch with your thoughts, feelings and body in the present moment. It’s about paying attention to those things in a deliberate, non-judgmental way. It’s becoming increasingly popular to address a number of problems, which can include stress, anxiety and depression," Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at the mental health charity Mind, who was not involved in the study, tells IFLScience.
Researchers compared mindfulness with present-centered group therapy, where patients are taught problem-solving strategies. The group who underwent mindfulness-based stress reduction had eight weekly group sessions that lasted for 2.5 hours as well as a daylong retreat. They were taught meditation techniques and breathing exercises to help them focus on the present and avoid the hyper-vigilance associated with PTSD.
"There’s lots of different types of practices that people could do, such as focusing on your breathing and notice thoughts and then let them go. Another popular mindfulness practice is eating a raisin, not swallowing it and paying attention to the taste, texture and the sensations triggered in your mouth," Boyd explains.
At the end of the treatment, 49% of veterans who had mindfulness-based therapy reported greater improvement in self-reported PTSD symptom severity, whereas 28% of veterans who received present-centered group therapy reported a reduction in PTSD symptoms. Boyd says mindfulness can be effective because it's about "trying to find a way to be present with your thoughts and to not try to fight them, address them or hide them from yourself."
While patients receiving mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy reported better quality of life after treatment, researchers point out that this doesn’t mean mindfulness was more likely to cure them of their PTSD. The improvements were also shown to be short term and tended to wear off after two months.
"It’s not unique to mindfulness that sometimes the effects can be quite short lived if people can struggle to keep those tools going, we see that with other form of therapies," Boyd says.
Researchers suggest mindfulness could form part of a broader strategy to help treat people suffering from PTSD as their findings show “that mindfulness-based stress reduction may provide veterans with internal tools for promoting self-management of PTSD symptoms and quality of life." The effectiveness of mindfulness is dependent on the problems people are dealing with, so while it's a technique people can find really helpful, it’s not going to be enough on its own to solve much more complex issues.