PTSD: Mindfulness Promotes Helpful Brain Changes


One of the promising ways of managing the disturbing memories associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the practice of mindfulness.

According to mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness “is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Researchers are discovering this type of awareness actually changes the brain in ways beneficial for people with PTSD.

The psychiatric disorder PTSD occurs following a traumatic event that is either experienced or witnessed such as combat, an accident, natural disasters, or an assault. Symptoms include flashbacks of the event, nightmares, avoiding reminders of the event, emotional numbness, isolation, irritability, and feeling constantly on guard.

To learn about the effects of mindfulness on those with traumatic memories, researchers gave one group of male veterans with PTSD a weekly mindfulness based intervention. Other PTSD veterans received group therapy that involved problem-solving and emotional support, but no mindfulness training.

While many of the study's participants enjoyed some PTSD symptom improvement, only those getting the mindfulness-based therapy showed brain changes on their MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.

Prior to getting the mindfulness instruction the veterans’ MRIs showed heightened activity in brain areas that respond to outside threats. This is owed to the continuous hyper-vigilance, or ever-watchfulness, experienced by those with PTSD.

After learning and practicing mindfulness, these veterans’ brains had grown strong connections between two other brain networks. One network functions to shift and direct attention, while the other plays a role in our inner, and sometimes wandering thought processes.

“The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training might have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being ‘stuck’ in painful cycles of thought,” reported researcher Dr. Anthony King.

The brain’s capacity to develop these new connections through mindfulness makes it likely that mindfulness training can be used to help those reluctant to discuss traumatic events in talk therapy sessions. “We hope it [mindfulness] may provide emotional regulation skills to help bring them to a place where they feel better able to process their traumas,” said King.

Source: Psychiatry Advisor
Photo credit: Harry Koopman

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