Mindfulness training – a combination of meditation and body awareness exercises – can help help soldiers prepare for and recover from stressful combat situations, a study showed.
Incorporating meditative practices into pre-deployment training might be a way to help military personnel reduce rates of stress-related health conditions, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, the study suggested.
“Mindfulness helps the body optimise its response to stress by helping the body interpret stressful events as bodily sensations,” said Martin Paulus, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego in the US.
“The brain adds less emotional affect to experiences and this helps with stress recovery,” Paulus explained.
Scientists describe mindfulness as a mental state characterised 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 – 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.
Participating marines, along with others who had not undergone mindfulness training, then spent a day in mock immersive combat at a 32,000-square-foot training facility staged to resemble a rural middle eastern village.
The scientists found that the heart and breathing rates of those who had received mindfulness training returned to their normal, baseline levels faster than those who had not received the mindfulness training; and they experienced improved immune function, as well.
Magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed that the mindfulness-trained marines had reduced activity patterns in regions of the brain responsible for integrating emotional reactivity, cognition and “interoception”.
The study appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.