Breaking the Cycle of PTSD Triggers through Meditation and Mindfulness
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7 or 8 out of every 100 people in the U.S. – or almost 8% – will experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. While it is today perhaps most widely associated with veterans returning from combat, a person can develop PTSD after experiencing any sort of trauma – a shocking or scary event that you see or experience yourself. This can range from an major accident to physical or sexual abuse, war, or witnessing death or injury.
Someone struggling with the effects of PTSD is often thrust into flashbacks of the event on a regular basis, reliving the moment in vivid detail. They might be triggered by something they see or hear, and their senses respond with intense feelings of anxiety, fear, adrenaline, hypervigilence, or anger. Other times, the sufferer unintentionally responds to the persistent memories by emotionally shutting down, distancing themselves from loved ones or friends, and falling into depression.
There are several current PTSD therapies that are typically employed to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, including “cognitive processing therapy” (a technique that helps a person get “unstuck” from obsessive thoughts) and “prolonged exposure therapy” (confronting memories head-on and learning effective coping mechanisms to work through them). But researchers are now also examining how a technique called “mindfulness” can play into the treatment of someone experiencing PTSD. While empirical results have not yet been adequately recorded, anecdotal evidence is showing that mindfulness can be very helpful in treatment.
Mindfulness in this sense is defined as recognizing and accepting, without judgment, how you are feeling in the present moment. A person observes his or her thoughts, feelings, and sensations and entails a stance of acceptance or willingness to experience them without judgment. Rather than fighting the emotion or feeling, or responding with fear or an adrenaline rush, a person learns to observe and separate mentally from the emotions, visualize themselves in the present moment rather than the past, and “ride the wave” of the experience until it passes.
Awareness and acceptance of trauma-related thoughts and feelings may help reduce what researchers call “physiological arousal” and help a person better regulate emotions. As a standalone activity, mindfulness can help a person break the obsessive thought cycle once it is triggered, and help them become more present in a moment rather being pulled into a flashback.
Used with other PTSD therapies, mindfulness can help a person prepare mentally for a therapy session or help put the techniques into use as needed during everyday life. Mindfulness also provides a good coping mechanism for PTSD-sufferers who have difficulty tolerating the more intensive PTSD therapies but still need practical techniques for breaking the cycle of triggered symptoms.
There are several emerging mindfulness techniques that appear to benefit PTSD sufferers, as they address the anxiety, depression, or emotion dysregulation that commonly co-occur with posttraumatic stress. For example:
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Aims to increase psychological flexibility and facilitate behavior change by targeting the avoidance of certain memories, emotions, and thoughts. Patients are taught to be aware of private events without judging or attempting to control them.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Helps a person develop three "what" skills (observing, describing, and participating) and three "how" skills (taking a nonjudgmental stance, focusing on one thing in the moment, and being effective). This is often helpful in preparing for more intensive exposure-based interventions and to address difficulties with emotion regulation and distress tolerance.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A technique often used for sufferers of chronic pain, it can be helpful for PTSD by addressing anxiety and depression. Mindfulness meditation helps cultivate a de-centered and nonjudgmental perspective in relation to physical sensations and emotions.
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Consists of an eight-week group intervention that teaches patients to focus more carefully on everyday events and allow thoughts to occur without trying to avoid or suppress them. It can potential help reduce depressive relapses.
- Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention: Helpful for PTSD sufferers who turn to drugs or alcohol to treat their PTSD symptoms, this technique teaches a person to engage in "urge surfing" by observing their urges as they appear, accepting them nonjudgmentally, and 'riding the waves' without giving in to the urges.
By taking a holistic approach and looking for practical, non-intrusive ways to help treat PTSD symptoms in everyday life, a person can begin making small steps toward improvement and healing. As researchers learn more about how best to use mindfulness to help treat posttraumatic stress, there is hope that it will be an additional weapon in the battle against PTSD.