Mindfulness Meditation Could Help Stressed-Out Soldiers

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Photo: Scott Olson/2004 Getty Images

Meditation might seem like a strange activity for members of the armed forces given that war isn't exactly conducive to quiet contemplation, but new research shows that one form of it may potentially help shield military personnel from PTSD and the other dangers of combat stress.

The study, released online today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, divvied up a group of Marines at Camp Pendleton into two groups. One received the usual infantry training, and the other had its training augmented with a 20-hour mindfulness training (MT) course that, like all such courses, taught "full attention to present-moment experience without elaboration, judgement, or emotional reactivity." (This particular course was specifically designed for individuals who had faced significant stress in the past, as many Marines obviously have.)

Then both groups engaged in a stressful immersive-training exercise designed in part to allow researchers to track how the Marines fared before, during, and after the simulated action. A handful of Marines from both groups were also periodically pulled for fMRI imaging to check for differences in brain activity.

Mindfulness might sound a bit New Age-y, but it has attracted serious attention from researchers for its potential in curtailing and preventing a variety of mental ailments. And sure enough, the Marines who had been enrolled in the MT regiment appeared to fare a bit better in certain ways. Their breathing rates recovered more quickly than the control group's after the exercise, and their brains showed less activity when they were exposed to images of emotional faces. The results, the researchers write, suggest that "responses to stress may be improved through training prior to stress exposure, even in individuals without a mental health condition."

As with any single study, there are caveats here, of course — not least the fact that this one centered on a single exercise rather than the long-term exposure to profound stress that so many Marines have faced in recent years. Still, though, since it's in line with what other work on mindfulness has shown in recent years, it's a notable study. (For a very enjoyable introduction to mindfulness from a skeptical civilian, I highly recommend Dan Harris's 10% Happier.)