June is National PTSD Awareness Month. According to a comprehensive study done by the RAND Corporation, at least 20% of America’s armed forces veterans who have fought in either Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression. With the number of veterans of these recent wars at more than 2.7 million, it is all of our jobs to help them reintegrate to life in the United States as seamlessly as possible. Unfortunately the lingering effects of PTSD can make that transition especially challenging.
How PTSD Affects the Brain
A 2012 study done by the Duke University Medical Center found that recently returned veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed a smaller than average area of the brain (the amygdala) critical in regulating fear and anxiety. Further research is needed to reveal whether the amygdala shrinks in response to trauma, or whether a smaller amygdala leads to a higher rate of PTSD. Those with PTSD have a hyper-alert amygdala that senses fear and danger even when there is none present.
Studies have also found the hippocampus—the area of the brain associated with processing memories—to be smaller than average in vets with PTSD. This suggests that PTSD impairs memory, making it hard to place memories in a proper context, leading the person to be bombarded by fragments of painful memories. Memory triggers set off the amygdala, inciting its fight or flight response, making for a vicious cycle for PTSD sufferers.
A third frontal area of the brain is also impaired by PTSD. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating behaviors, impulses and fear responses, but for those with PTSD, the prefrontal cortex is notably less active, meaning it can’t work in tandem with the amygdala and the hippocampus as it should.
The brain is a complex mechanism, and while great strides have been made in understanding how PTSD affects our body’s control center, science has yet to find a cure. Instead we must focus on effective treatments for the million of veterans already living with PTSD. Mindfulness has proven to be extraordinarily effective in combatting the symptoms of PTSD.
Meditation Can Rewire the Brain
Meditation allows veterans to hit the reset button and get centered on the here and now rather than replaying traumatic events from their time of service. By practicing non-judgmental mindfulness practices such as meditation, PTSD sufferers can find relief from the stress of reliving traumatic events. A study of Vietnam War vets with PTSD found that three months of practicing Transcendental Meditation led to decreased symptoms including alcohol use, high startle response, emotional numbness and anxiety. For the first time in years, many of these vets were able to successfully return to work after years of having their PTSD derail their career efforts.
Harvard University studies have found that meditation actually rewires the way the brain works, creating new pathways. This works like the reverse of PTSD—whereas trauma causes a breakdown of brain functioning, actively practicing meditation can bolster brain functioning for creating empathy and reducing stress. This is due the brain’s impressive neuroplasty, or ability to reshape itself throughout the course of one’s life.
By practicing meditation, we can help the brain heal itself. Essentially, meditation can help to increase activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes, while calming the overactive amygdala in PTSD sufferers.
A growing number of studies in the medical community are looking to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness on treating PTSD. So far the results have been overwhelming positive for devising treatment plans that include meditation practices as a way to get unstuck from the negative cycle of thoughts and behaviors that PTSD creates. By creating greater awareness around treating PTSD, hopefully we will see a drastic reduction in the number of veterans whose lives have been affected by post traumatic stress disorder.