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Military Health System, U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Can meditation really help alleviate PTSD?

A study says yes—but take it with a grain of salt.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on Jan 13, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 9:13 am CDT

About 13 percent of soldiers returning from war these days bring back a disturbing souvenir: post-traumatic stress disorder. 

This anxiety disorder leads sufferers to suffer from flashbacks, troubled sleep, and frightening thoughts that seriously cut into their ability to go about their daily lives. Victims are in want of effective treatments—most drugs don’t work that well. A new study suggests something new and different: meditation.

Specifically, the study looked at transcendental meditation, a technique taught by the nonprofit,  Maharishi Foundation USA. This technique claims to be easier than other meditation techniques because it requires no concentration and simply trains the individual to progressively relax, allowing them to enter a greater state of self awareness.

And, according to a blog post by the David Lynch Foundation, it’s a great complement to treatment for people suffering from PTSD.

The study, published in Military Medicine and partially funded by the David Lynch Foundation, followed 74 military service members over six months. Half of them were trained and practiced transcendental meditation while the other half didn’t. Both groups continued any medications they were taking as well.

By the end of the trial, 60 percent of the patients who practiced meditation had stopped, stabilized, or decreased their medication. Fifty-four percent of the control group had done the same. However, at earlier points in the trial, those differences were more significant, with more of the treatment group stabilizing on their medication. As the trial went on, the medication status became unclear for a greater number of participants as well.

The researchers also measured how severe symptoms were along the trial. At the one month mark, the meditation group’s average symptom severity had gone down by about 15 percent compared to their baseline. But by the six month mark, it was back to normal. Using statistics, the researchers predicted that in another two months, the average score would be down again.

Overall, the patients in who meditated did better than the patients who didn’t, if only by a slim margin. The researchers wrote in the study that part of that may be explained by the small sample size and the difficulty in making sure everyone was staying on track with their treatments.

The study’s authors did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment in time for publication.

The mixed results are not a good reason to dismiss the study. Meditation does show some promise as a therapy for people with anxiety disorders. One meta-analysis looked at several other studies and found that transcendental meditation helped lower overall anxiety levels, particularly in people with high levels of anxiety to begin with—such as veterans with PTSD.

Another meta-analysis found differences in brain structures examined in many different studies. They found practitioners of meditation had consistent differences in parts of the brain associated with the awareness of the body’s position in space as well as emotional regulation. They noted, however, that these studies are prone to publication bias; they are more likely to be published if they show positive, exciting results. Psychology often struggles with this sort of bias.

They also noted that people who naturally possess these brain differences may be more open to meditation and are therefore more likely to stick with it when they try it out.

Another open-access study in PLOS One found that transcendental meditation helped reduce blood pressure and increase telomerase, an enzyme associated with long-term health and longevity. But meditation didn’t improve these scores significantly more than just giving adults an extensive health course.

Of course the Maharishi Foundation USA has no shortage of studies on the matter. It’s hard to go through every one of them and assess their validity, but in sum it does seem to suggest that this form of meditation is helpful. But it’s difficult to say if the effect is just a placebo or genuine—though if it helps reduce the crippling symptoms of PTSD, does it matter?

Photo by Military Health System, U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 13, 2016, 11:00 am CST