By Ella Xiong
According to a growing body of research, regular meditation can possibly the wellbeing of military members — both active duty and those who have previously served.
Meditation is rooted in spirituality, which affects personal wellness in its own way, but the neurological underpinnings of meditation’s other health benefits are being widely assessed by researchers, and they’re building a scientific case for its benefits.
Mind and Body
Commander Jeffrey Millegan, MD, who currently heads the Mind Body Medicine program (MBM) at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, studies meditation’s effect on military personnel. His publications, to name a few, include a case report on the ways regular meditation increased the quality of life of a Marine with chronic pain and a preliminary study on using it as a stress-management tool to help cancer patients.
Recently, scientists at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center thermally heated a patch of skin in groups of participants receiving either mindfulness training or a placebo anesthetic cream and measured their response using pain ratings and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The brain scans of meditators showed unique pain-reduction effects; brain regions that help control pain were activated, specifically the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex, while regions that dissipate pain signals were deactivated.
According to Millegan, pain services are in high demand at NMCSD, and pain management is one area where meditation can help. Mindfulness meditation, in short, trains the mind to focus on the present. Millegan offers a pain management course that teaches multiple meditative techniques which can be practiced anywhere, free-of-charge.
“The cost of the military health system has continued to grow at an alarming rate,” Millegan wrote in his original proposal for MBM, “it is a priority of the military health system to recapture care from the network through a strategy of improving patient’s customer experience.”
According to a RAND Corporation analysis, more than 18 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression at a VA health care center. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is just as common. Veterans may experience symptoms of chronic memory disturbance, persistent avoidance of things associated with a traumatic event, hyperarousal and negative emotions. If left untreated, they can face other psychological conditions that affect daily life as well.
“The VA recommends medications (selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors and prazosin) and psychotherapeutic approaches like cognitive processing therapy, exposure therapy, stress management skills training, and eye desensitization reprocessing for PTSD,” according to researchers at VA Puget Sound. The problem is, they add, “despite the availability of [traditional intervention], many people with PTSD continue to experience PTSD symptoms.”
In 2011 researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine and Naval Health Research Center conducted a test to see if meditation helped soldiers recover from stress more efficiently. Participating Marine units had to complete operational challenges while exposed to close-quarters combat situations created by role players. Half of them received mindfulness training for 20 hours over an 8-week period, including classroom instructions, interviews, and workshops.
The researchers periodically assessed their heart and breathing rate, blood samples, self-reports, and for a portion of them, fMRI (functional neuroimaging).
Brain scans showed that meditation activated the insular cortex, which helps regulate stress, emotions and homeostasis. According to the paper, those who meditated demonstrated “a more potent response to stress followed by quicker recovery” compared to those who didn’t.
“Incorporating meditative practice might be a way to help the U.S. military reduce rising rates of stress-related health conditions,” the researchers concluded.
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