How it works and how to try it

How it works and how to try it

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a fairly common mental health condition.

People often associate PTSD with military service, but anyone can develop PTSD after surviving a traumatic event.

In fact, estimates suggest that more than 80 percent of people in the United States will experience some type of trauma in their lifetime. More than 8 percent of those who survive trauma will develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:

  • Relive the event. You may have nightmares or flashbacks that make you feel like you are physically reliving your trauma.
  • Avoiding event reminders. You may stay away from crowds or refuse to watch movies with situations similar to the trauma you experienced.
  • Negative thoughts and feelings. You may experience survivor guilt or struggle to trust other people.
  • Increased excitement. You may be startled by loud noises, have trouble sleeping or feel constantly angry.

If you have PTSD, know that you have plenty of options for treatment, including therapy and medication, as well as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) such as meditation.

Many people with PTSD find CAM helpful.

In a 2013 study, 39 percent of 599 people with PTSD reported using CAM approaches, including meditation and relaxation techniques, to relieve symptoms.

Read on to learn how meditation can help manage PTSD symptoms, plus some guidelines to get you started. You will also find more details about other CAM approaches that may be beneficial for PTSD.

While mediation may have benefits as part of a combined treatment approach, it is not considered one of the first-line treatments for PTSD.

Those include:

Therapy

According to survey 2017 researching the benefits of yoga and meditation for PTSD, therapy remains the most effective treatment. Experts consider the following approaches particularly helpful:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). CPT focuses on the ways trauma may have distorted your thinking, such as “It’s all my fault” or “No one can be trusted.” This approach can help you strike a balance between respecting your feelings and challenging extreme beliefs.
  • Long-term exposure (PE). PE can help reduce your emotional response to triggers through guided confrontations. For example, in therapy after a car accident, a therapist may have you watch videos of cars and do calming exercises throughout.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR aims to change the way your brain stores traumatic memories so that they don’t come back. For example, an EMDR therapist may have you make specific eye movements while focusing on a particular memory.

CPT and PE are specialized forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapy that helps you deal with useless thoughts and actions. while CBT can still helps people with PTSD, the review mentioned above found it less effective than the trauma-focused adjustments.

medication

Your healthcare team may recommend medication in addition to therapy to help you manage PTSD-related stress. For example, they may prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This antidepressant helps the mood chemical serotonin travel through your brain more effectively.

Medication can help alleviate the impact of PTSD symptoms, but it won’t address the underlying cause — that’s where therapy comes in.

Read more about treatment options for PTSD.

Meditation is an exercise that can help you focus your mind and gain a greater awareness of your:

  • yourself
  • thoughts and inner experience
  • surroundings
  • Moment to Moment Needs

What you choose to focus on may depend on the type of meditation you practice, and the different types of meditation may provide slightly different benefits.

Types of meditation that can help relieve PTSD symptoms include:

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness refers to a state of mind in which you can acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment. Some people describe this as an observer in your own head.

Mindfulness meditation uses this state to help you narrow your focus to the here and now. By increasing your awareness of the present moment, you may find it easier to stay grounded in the safer present when intrusive memories return.

In short, keeping your mental “eye” off the future can in turn help your anxiety fade away.

Mantra Meditation

In mantra meditation, you repeat a sound or phrase out loud to focus your attention. You can choose any affirmative phrase or sound that has meaning for you.

You don’t have to follow any religion or spiritual practice to use mantra meditation, but you will likely encounter some spiritual language as you learn the basics.

Mantra meditation can reduce hyperarousal symptoms such as muscle tension or anxiety. As your body relaxes, you will find that your mind also begins to relax more easily – and vice versa.

Loving Kindness Meditation

Metta, or loving-kindness, meditation can stimulate feelings of love and kindness, both for yourself and for others. During this meditative practice, you might imagine receiving good wishes from your loved ones and wishing them mental happiness in return.

It may come as no surprise that surrounding yourself with good vibes on a regular basis can improve your mood and help you feel better overall.

A 2013 pilot study of 42 veterans with PTSD suggests that loving-kindness meditation can stimulate positive emotions, relieve depression symptoms, and promote self-compassion. These outcomes can help counteract the feelings of irritability, sadness, and self-criticism you might experience with PTSD.

According to the 2017 review as mentioned above, meditation can have a moderate effect on PTSD symptoms by helping:

The authors did not find much difference between the different types of meditation. They also noted that meditation does not seem to have as great an effect as the first-line therapy approaches discussed above. However is doing appear to have similar effects to medication management, the second-line treatment for PTSD.

In other words, while meditation probably can’t treat PTSD symptoms alone, it can work well as an adjunct to traditional treatments.

Want to give meditation a try, but don’t know where to start?

Try starting with this simple breathing meditation:

  1. Go to a place where you feel safe and get into a relaxed position. You can sit or lie down, however you feel most comfortable.
  2. Set a timer for how long you want to meditate. If you’ve never meditated before, 5 minutes can be a good starting goal.
  3. Concentrate on your breathing. Listen for the sound of air entering and exiting your mouth. Feel your lungs expand and contract.
  4. You don’t have to control the pace of your breaths. All you need to do is observe your breath as it happens.
  5. If other thoughts try to slip in, don’t worry about it. Notice them and then let them pass, keeping your attention on your breathing.
  6. When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. Does your mind feel clearer or calmer than before?
  7. If you feel worse, you may want to contact a therapist before trying again. Meditation can sometimes trigger uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, so it’s not for everyone.

Learn more tips in our guide to building a daily meditation practice.

Meditation Resources

If you’re ready to move on to more complex forms of meditation, these resources can get you started:

Looking for useful meditation apps? Check out our top 13 picks.

Meditation isn’t the only CAM approach used to address PTSD symptoms. Other approaches to add to your treatment toolbox include:

Yoga

Yoga is based on a combination of mindfulness, breathing and stretching to create a sense of calm.

There is some evidence that yoga can help people with PTSD reduce physical and emotional stress.

For example, a 2014 study including 64 women with treatment-resistant PTSD. Half attended women’s health classes and half did trauma-informed yoga. After treatment, women in the yoga group noticed improvements in:

  • tolerance to physical sensations associated with anxiety (such as muscle tension)
  • recognition of their emotional state
  • ability to accept negative emotions

The control group also reported some of these improvements. But their PTSD symptoms returned during the second half of treatment, while the yoga group experienced lasting improvement.

Biofeedback

In biofeedback, monitors track your biological functions, such as heart rate and body temperature, while you perform relaxation exercises.

A biofeedback therapist will show you different relaxation exercises as the biofeedback device shows how well each is working in real time. With this immediate feedback and positive reinforcement, you may find it easier to learn and use these techniques efficiently.

Studies on biofeedback remain limited, but the results look promising. In a 2015 study, eight participants received either trauma-focused CBT or CBT plus biofeedback. While both groups reported improvement, the group that did biofeedback experienced a significantly faster reduction in PTSD symptoms.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine, involves the use of needles to stimulate specific points on the body. Proponents of acupuncture say it can reduce stress by altering your autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing.

Evidence to support the benefits of acupuncture for PTSD remains limited. Many studies lack a suitable control group. A 2018 systematic review considered seven acupuncture studies that did have control groups, but the review authors found that most of these studies still had “very low” quality of evidence.

Of course, this does not mean that acupuncture does not work. Many people find it helpful, so it may be worth a try, especially since it’s a fairly low-risk approach.

Meditation can help improve your mood, relax your body, and keep intrusive thoughts at bay, so it can go a long way in relieving PTSD symptoms.

If you’re struggling to cope with PTSD symptoms, it may be helpful to add a meditation practice to your treatment plan.

Keep in mind that meditation usually cannot replace therapy as a first-line treatment. In general, working with a therapist who specializes in PTSD treatment is the best path to lasting improvement.


Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor specializing in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021 she obtained her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

How it works and how to try it

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