After two tours of duty in Iraq, Michael (not his real name) struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild depression. A psychiatrist prescribed the 32-year-old service member medication and exposure therapy and saw him every two weeks.

The therapy helped, but after a year Michael had trouble keeping up with the visits. He didn’t want to backslide; was there something he could do at home? Actually, there is: mindfulness meditation.

While the term mindfulness trends in many health-related news outlets, this article is about mindfulness meditation – a popular form of meditation that helps treat various psychological health concerns. And it has clinical evidence to show that it’s effective.

What exactly is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is the nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through one’s mind. The goal of a mindfulness program is to help people improve their well-being and learn to better regulate their emotions. Instead of dwelling on negative feelings, people learn to experience these feelings as momentary impulses that will pass.

Eureka!

Pictures of the human brain before and after a course in mindfulness meditation show significant changes in its activity, according to Dr. Marina A. Khusid, chief of integrative medicine for the Deployment Clinical Health Center. Mindfulness meditation appears to make the amygdala — the part of the brain that controls memories associated with traumatic events — less active, and the prefrontal cortex — the part that involves decision-making and social behavior — more active, she said.

“The amygdala is activated during fear. The prefrontal cortex sends signals to inhibit this reaction when there’s nothing to fear,” Khusid explained.

In patients who abuse drugs or alcohol, or have PTSD, the amygdala isn’t properly deactivated, she said. Mindfulness meditation increases the speed and connectivity of the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala.

Studies look promising

Also, a number of research studies indicate that mindfulness meditation, alone or in conjunction with medication or therapy, reduces symptoms of depression, substance abuse disorder, chronic pain and PTSD. It also reduces depression relapse rate and the amount of substance use, she said. Although more clinical trials are needed to confirm the findings for PTSD, she added, early studies are very promising.

“The reason it’s so impressive is that very few interventions are so broad spectrum,” Khusid said. “Also, [mindfulness meditation] is free and portable.”

Although there are dozens of recommendations for adding mindfulness to one’s day or practicing meditation, those that were clinically shown to be effective are certain six- to eight-week programs led by a certified teacher. We plan to highlight particular types of mindfulness med

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This is the first in a series of posts on mindfulness meditation. Future posts will feature mindfulness meditation techniques and how the practice can help treat various health concerns.

Posted by Beth Schwinn, DCoE Public Affairs on February 25, 2015