Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Mindfulness. Most people today have passing knowledge of these two seemingly unrelated topics. The increasing number of veterans returning from tours of duty leads to an increased awareness of PTSD and its symptoms. Mindfulness is becoming increasingly well known also, if only at the most basic level of its definition. But how do the two relate to each other?
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs article, Potential of Mindfulness in Treating Trauma Reactions, despite a current lack of empirical evidence, it is clear that mindfulness could play a meaningful role in the treatment of PTSD. To understand why mindfulness would play a positive role in the treatment of PTSD, let’s talk about the basics of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This therapy helps patients use meditation and mindfulness in order to focus on their thoughts and feelings, and realign how they react to and interact with those feelings. The intent is to be aware of any thoughts that might occur, both good and bad, and to accept them, but not react to them in the way that may be instinctive due to trauma or depression.
When people who are prone to depression have certain thoughts, often the reaction can lead to negative thinking patterns, leading them to feel critical or judgmental of themselves. This kind of reaction can be a major trigger of a depressive episode. Mindfulness concentrates on rerouting these types of thought patterns to free patients from a cycle of depression. Instead of avoiding or fearing thoughts that naturally occur, patients are encouraged to observe them without judgment. This takes control away from the upsetting thoughts and feelings and gives it to the patient to control his or her reactions. According to the article, “Regular mindfulness practice can lead to a greater present-centered awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of potentially distressing cognitive and emotional states, as well as trauma-related internal and external triggers.”
One can see how this behavioral change might be meaningful for PTSD sufferers. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop after a person has a traumatic event, and more specifically a threat to his or her life. One major group associated with PTSD includes soldiers who have served in wars, such as the Iraq and Afghan wars. PTSD is frequently associated with soldiers because the trauma experienced in a war zone is unlike that which most people can understand or relate to.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, symptoms of PTSD disrupt a sufferer’s life and make it hard to continue with regular tasks. Symptoms may include:
- Reliving the event, sometimes caused by a trigger sound, sight, or smell
- Avoiding situations that might remind the sufferer of the event, sometimes including avoiding crowds and busy areas
- Negative changes in beliefs and feelings, for example thinking the world is dangerous and no one can be trusted
- Feeling extra alert or jittery, which might mean having a hard time sleeping or concentrating
Knowing the basics of PTSD, we can see how mindfulness, and MBCT, could be helpful to a PTSD sufferer. MBCT encourages patients to remain in the present, and to accept their thoughts and feelings without judgment. For a PTSD sufferer, this can be especially important. Focusing on letting difficult feelings in and accepting them for what they are gives a person control over how he or she moves forward, instead of feeling like a victim of his or her own thoughts. Instead of ruminating over traumatic memories, patients see the value of accepting the memory instead of avoiding it. Removing the self-criticism and judgment a person may experience from negative thoughts removes a lot of the fear and anxiety from those thoughts. The idea is that acceptance gives the patient control and allows them to move on from behaviors that may have previously seemed unavoidable or out of their control.
According to the article, “greater levels of acting with awareness and accepting without judgment were associated with lower levels of post traumatic stress symptoms.” Whether a patient uses Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or simply incorporates some of its basic points into his or her daily life, mindfulness can offer PTSD sufferers relief and focus when it is needed most.