How Meditation Heals PTSD
The simplest explanation: proper meditation is a reset button. Extreme or repeated trauma overwhelms the circuits of our nervous system. A meditation technique that allows a person to completely transcend and experience deep rest allows the nervous system to reset itself. (There are entire approaches to healing PTSD that are rest-based. See the book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine.)
If we bump up one level of sophistication, we can consider how the brain is affected by PTSD. Explained most simply, the back of the brain is what researchers refer to as the "reptilian" part of the brain. It governs basic motor skills and is also the command-and-control center for the fight-or-flight response. If you looked up right now and saw a spear flying toward your face, then the back of the brain, which is always on at least low alert, would kick into action. Without thinking, you would dodge the spear. (The same mechanism governs a frog catching a fly with its tongue. OK, so maybe it should be called the "amphibian" part of the brain.) In contrast, the front of the brain—remember, this is still a simple version—is the center for sophisticated human thought and action. It is the command-and-control center for a number of sophisticated capabilities, including: higher moral reasoning (it's the CEO of the brain), complex social interaction (think courtship rather than saluting), and the extreme opposite of flight-or-flight, a state that can be described as bliss, or deep religious communion (of any faith), or a "spiritual awakening" (the one that people in 12 Step programs seek as the basis of their recovery). This state is deeply peaceful and very aware; a balance of resting-dynamism and peaceful alertness (the opposite of hyper-alertness or hyper-arousal). It is this experience that resets the brain and nervous system. Certain types of meditation are designed to give us this experience. Effective meditation can shift the center of control from the back to the front of the brain. This is how meditation heals PTSD. With regular practice, meditation can eliminate from the brain the permanent state of hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance characteristic of PTSD. (A more sophisticated explanation of the brain, trauma and hyper- and hypo-arousal is contained in Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy by Pat Ogden and Kekuni Minton.)
This shifting of the locus of control from the back of the brain to the front is experienced as "transcending." You go from a thought-filled mind to a less cluttered, more silent awareness. When you transcend completely, you go beyond thinking to silence. The most effective (and the simplest and easiest to learn) form of transcending meditation is the Transcendental Meditation technique. This form of meditation has been standardized and is taught the same everywhere in the world by teachers that are well trained and certified.
A Quick Course in Meditation and PTSD
The following is a very quick online course. It is a brief online introduction to the Transcendental Meditation technique (TM) used as a treatment for PTSD. You should be able to get through this in about 40 minutes. Read the text and click on all the links; most links go to a short video. We will cover:
- what is TM
- how do you learn to meditate
- the research on meditation
- how do people with PTSD respond to meditation
(This web page does not cover the clinical details of incorporating meditation into a comprehensive PTSD treatment program. This is covered elsewhere. Also, this site will not teach you to meditate; but will show you how and where you can learn.)
How does meditation work and what's the research
Physicist John Hagelin on Transcendental Meditation (24 minutes) A great, efficient introduction. A lot of knowledge.
Effects of Transcendental Meditation on PTSD-susceptible populations:
Veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Videos of veterans with PTSD describing Transcendental Meditation in their recovery. If short on time, watch only the above Vietnam veterans video. If you have more time watch the videos below. Veterans who have described their experience include: World War II veterans (video) (book), Vietnam veterans, and veterans of the Iraq war (as well as the mother of an Iraq war vet).
Prisoners and PTSD
Transcendental Meditation has been used for effective rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, in dozens of U.S. prisons, including San Quentin, Stillwater, Folsom, and the Milan Federal Penitentiary; plus an entire country (Sierra Leone) implemented TM in its prison system. There is currently an active project in Oregon, as well as other projects starting in prisons in other states and countries. Stress is a huge factor, as is lack of macroscopic EEG brain coherence (hence bad decisions that lead to crime and incarceration). In the state of California, the main reason someone goes back to prison is failing a drug test while on probation. All of these factors are directly improved by the Transcendental Meditation technique (see research link below). Here are a number of perspectives from inmates and staff at the Oregon prison: good first video to watch on Transcendental Meditation in prisons.
Schools and PTSD
The Quiet Time program. Children living in violent crime areas are susceptible to PTSD, and the stress affects teachers' abilities to help students.
Research on Transcendental Meditation
For more research on TM: www.TM.org/research-on-meditation and click on the "Top 100 published studies" link. A link to the full text of the study is included (for journals that permit online display).