Use of Mindfulness in the Military

By Ella Xiong

Mindfulness and the MilitaryAccording 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.”

Alleviating Stress

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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Related Continuing Education Courses

This CE test is based on the book “A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook” (2010, 224 pages). Stress and pain are nearly unavoidable in our daily lives; they are part of the human condition. This stress can often leave us feeling irritable, tense, overwhelmed, and burned-out. The key to maintaining balance is responding to stress not with frustration and self-criticism, but with mindful, nonjudgmental awareness of our bodies and minds. Impossible? Actually, it’s easier than it seems. In just weeks, you can learn mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a clinically proven program for alleviating stress, anxiety, panic, depression, chronic pain, and a wide range of medical conditions. Taught in classes and clinics worldwide, this powerful approach shows you how to focus on the present moment in order to permanently change the way you handle stress. As you work through A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, you’ll learn how to replace stress-promoting habits with mindful ones-a skill that will last a lifetime.


This course provides an overview of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It describes the diagnostic criteria, prevalence of PTSD in veteran and civilian samples, comorbid conditions, longitudinal course, and risk factors. Empirically validated treatment options are briefly discussed. The course is based on one of a series of activities from the Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD 101 curriculum. PTSD 101 is a web-based curriculum of diverse topics focusing on issues related to combat stress/PTSD. This course consists of the speaker’s original lecture and selected slides transcribed verbatim without editorial modifications.


This course will give you the mindfulness skills necessary to work directly, effectively and courageously, with your own and your client’s life struggles. Compassion towards others starts with compassion towards self. Practicing mindfulness cultivates our ability to pay intentional attention to our experience from moment to moment. Mindfulness teaches us to become patiently and spaciously aware of what is going on in our mind and body without judgment, reaction, and distraction, thus inviting into the clinical process, the inner strengths and resources that help achieve healing results not otherwise possible. Bringing the power of mindful presence to your clinical practice produces considerable clinical impact in the treatment of anxiety, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, colitis/IBS, and migraines/tension headaches. The emphasis of this course is largely experiential and will offer you the benefit of having a direct experience of the mindfulness experience in a safe and supportive fashion. You will utilize the power of “taking the client there” as an effective technique of introducing the mindful experience in your practice setting. As you will learn, the mindfulness practice has to be experienced rather than talked about. This course will provide you with an excellent understanding of exactly what mindfulness is, why it works, and how to use it. You will also develop the tools that help you introduce mindful experiences in your practice, and how to deal with possible client resistance.


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The breath is intrinsically linked to the nervous system and has a powerful effect on both the mind and body, yet has been largely overlooked as a mechanism of change within medicine and mental health. This course is based on an audio book by Andrew Weil, MD, Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing (1999), in which he describes the physiological mechanisms by which the breath affects the mind and body. After an introductory lecture, he teaches several calming, relaxing breathing techniques, as well as an energizing breathing technique. This audio book is a valuable resource for therapists and medical professionals to learn these techniques and to use with clients.


Professional Development Resources, Inc. is a Florida nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) that offers 150+ online, video and book-based continuing education courses for healthcare professionals. We are approved by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (b); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; and by the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners.