Can a little meditation before combat help a Marine fight better, while preventing post-traumatic stress disorder once the bullets stop flying? A new study suggests that "mindfulness training," a form of body and mind control based on Zen Buddhism, can help both during and after combat to lower breathing and heart rate levels, as well as returning the body to normal more quickly.
The researchers tested four platoons of Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and found that mindfulness training made a big difference, and could possibly be used to help reduce the alarming incidence of PTSD, depression and anxiety suffered by many returning veterans.
"The goal was to provide them with a set of techniques that would better help them deal with stressful events," said Martin Paulus, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and an author on the study released today in the American Journal of Psychiatry. "This version of mindfulness was focused on monitoring information from inside the body. It was almost like an inoculation to make them more stress resistant."
Scientists describe mindfulness as a mental state characterized by "full attention to the present moment without elaboration, judgment or emotional reactivity."
Mindfulness training, traditionally practiced through sitting meditation, attempts to cultivate this mental state by quieting the mind of extraneous thoughts. In the study, 147 Marine infantrymen took an eight-week course in mindfulness, tailored for individuals operating in highly stressful environments.
The course included classroom instruction on meditation and homework exercises, as well as training on "interoception." That is the ability to help the body regulate its overall physical equilibrium (homeostasis) by becoming aware of bodily sensations, such as tightness in the stomach, heart rate and tingling of the skin.
After the meditation work, the Marines took part in pre-deployment combat training that included a mock ambush in a simulated Middle Eastern village set up at Camp Pendleton. Afterward, the Marines were tested using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as checked for biomarkers released by the brain that signal stress-related hormone levels.
"They weren't necessarily calmer during the stress," Paulus said. "But they were quicker to recover from the stress once it was over."
One expert not affiliated with the study said it showed promise as a tool in reducing the arousal levels that both soldiers and law enforcement officers feel during stress.
"It could be used to help them with emotion regulation training so they could learn to control their arousal levels and bring their arousal levels down, and that would be good," said Charles Marmar, chair of the psychiatry department at the New York University Langone Medical Center and director of the school's Cohen Veterans Center. "We don't know whether they can do that in real stress situations. That wouldn’t reduce PTSD, but it might reduce the risk for PTSD."
The onset of PTSD is influenced by a variety of factors, including stress hormones, previous history of trauma and depression, and the role of several genes.
While the UCSD/Navy study showed promising results, most Marines stopped meditating once they were shipped out for a one-year deployment, according to Paulus. One challenge is getting the aggressive Marine Corps fighters to accept the idea of quiet meditation.
“The biggest issue is if we can find ways to implement (training) that is consistent with the culture of the Marine Corps,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, which collaborated with UCSD on the study, told Discovery News that military officials have not decided whether to implement mindfulness training.