Mindfulness, Meditation, and PTSD

meditation and the brain

Mindfulness, Meditation, and PTSD

November 15, 2014

If you look back in history, meditation has always been a part of martial arts and associated with a warrior culture. There may be good reasons behind this intertwining of two such very different skills. Warriors have always dealt with trauma, and trauma was as wounding then as it is today. Perhaps in ancient times, they found relief in meditation.

Meditation is a generic word that refers to a number of techniques including transcendental meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, and Zen Buddhist meditation (practiced in Japan by the Samurai). Similar techniques are also practiced by devotees in almost all religions. The different types vary in their focus, but all techniques have the same basic approach.


1) A quiet location with few distractions.

2) A comfortable posture, which may be lying, sitting, standing, or walking.

3) A focus of attention such as breathing, a mantra, chant, or an object.

4) A nonjudgmental acceptance of what happens. In meditation you learn to calmly focus your attention. When your focus wavers, you can gently refocus or observe whatever is passing through your mind without judging it as bad or good.


About 9% of adults in the United States use some kind of meditation. This number has been steadily increasing as people seek alternative approaches to deal with both physical and mental distress. A number of formal scientific studies now support the positive effects of meditation, including those in the list below:

1) Meditation calms the Sympathetic Nervous System

We already know that PTSD symptoms of hyper-arousal are initiated by an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and that prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system produces chemicals that can damage your brain. Now there is scientific evidence that practicing meditation has a marked effect on both the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (our body’s maintenance system).

Scientific studies now show that meditation calms the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic. This means it will lower your blood pressure and reduce your body’s chemical reaction to stress. That makes meditation a potentially useful tool not only for relieving active PTSD symptoms, but also for protecting your brain from future stress.

2) Meditation Reduces Activity in our “monkey brains”

A study from Yale University found that mindfulness meditation decreased activity in the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” Since activity in this area is typically associated with being less happy and more anxious, suppressing it could be beneficial, especially for folks with PTSD. Studies now show that anytime our thinking wanders into this area, meditators are better at snapping out of it.

 3) Meditation Rivals Antidepressants for Depression and Anxiety.

Anxiety, depression can be serious problems for folks with PTSD. A study at Johns Hopkins looked at mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce these symptoms. Researchers found that the effect size of meditation on anxiety and depression was moderate at 0.3, the exact same effect size you get by taking an antidepressant. So if you hate taking pills, meditation may help you to reduce them over time.

There’s also a new type of meditation, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, that aims to reduce both physical and mental stress. Studies show that the resulting reduction in anxiety can last for years after the initial 8-week course.

 4) Meditation can Increase and Decrease Brain Cells  in Key Areas of the Brain

A team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of your brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in other areas of the brain that help regulate emotion.

There was also a decrease in the size of the amygdala, which is responsible for negative feelings like fear, anger, and despair. Previous research had found enlarged amygdalas in veterans with PTSD, so reducing their size could be helpful.

More important than the lab findings, however, were changes in the participants’ sense of well-being. When the MRI changes were matched against the participants’ self-reported emotional state,  it was evident that meditation had changed more than their brain; it had also improved their mental health.

5) Meditation Improves Concentration after only a Few Days of Training.

Problems with attention and concentration are common in folks with PTSD, and one of the key benefits of meditation is that it improves both of these problems. Since a strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, it’s not too surprising that scientific studies show a significant increase in focus on tests after only a few days of meditation. Other studies also show an increase in nerve cell volume in areas of our brain associated with attention and concentration in people who have meditated for years.

6) Meditation Can Help with Addiction

A growing number of studies show that meditation can be helpful in recovery from addictions. One study pitted mindfulness training against the American Lung Association’s freedom from smoking (FFS) program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to quit smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the FSS treatment.  Other research using mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) have found improved recovery rates in many types of addiction.

 7) Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain

A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter (nerve cells) volume throughout the brain. Older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, but it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. It surprised the researchers to find that this improvement was wide-spread throughout the brain.



1) No pills or doctors required

2) No known side effects

3) Improves general health and blood pressure

4) Improves depression and anxiety

5) Improves focus and attention

6) Calms the sympathetic nervous system

7) Changes your brain structure for the better

8) Helps your brain stay healthy as you age


1) No scientific proof that it treats PTSD.

2) No scientific comparisons to other forms of PTSD treatment.

3) Requires training

4) Requires time to meditate on a daily basis

5) If you take medicine to calm down, you should continue it, at least until you’re experienced at meditation.

6) You may still need Exposure Therapy for flashbacks.


Current scientific research suggests that if you meditate daily, you can calm down your sympathetic nervous system, improve attention and concentration, reduce depression and anxiety, reduce negative thinking, reduce addictions, and better preserve your brain. All it costs you is one hour of your day. What have you really got to lose?


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