There has been a lot of research in mindfulness meditation in the last decade. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been shown to be extremely effective in a relatively short period of time. It has shown to be helpful with anxiety, stress and depression, as well as chronic pain and illness. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is another evidence-based practice that uses mindfulness skills to help individuals cope with depressive symptoms and has recently been shown to help veterans with PTSD reduce their symptoms.
People who practiced mindfulness meditation about half an hour a day for 8 weeks saw a change in several brain structures related to learning, memory, emotion, and the fear response. These are all things that play a role in post-traumatic stress responses.
Among parts of the brain impacted were the hippocampus and amygdala. After a mere 8 weeks, there was an increase in gray matter in these parts of the brain—the same part of the brain that sees a decrease after someone develops PTSD. So if PTSD is associated with a decrease in density in gray matter in the hippocampus and then there is increase in density after several weeks of practicing mindfulness, there is at least a basis for future research on how mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of PTSD.
The nearly universally agreed upon protocol requires some manner of exposure to, or processing of, the traumatic event itself. Therefore, mindfulness can’t yet be considered a stand-alone treatment for PTSD. That said, avoidance symptoms are a huge obstacle in being able to do exposure and processing. Mindfulness has been shown to help people increase their distress tolerance, which can then help them “stay with” memories and symptoms during treatment. My clients successfully learn and implement mindfulness skills in trauma therapy to prepare to process their trauma.
How to practice this yourself? Mindfulness just means being present, and there are a lot of ways to do this. A classic mindfulness exercise is to eat a raisin or an orange while completely engaged in the entire process. Absorb the sight, texture, smell and taste of the item. Fully experience preparing to eat it, placing it in the mouth, and finally, chewing and swallowing the fruit.
You can also practice mindfulness while walking, listening to music, doing the dishes, cooking, or just about any other activity. These are all types of informal mindfulness practices, and can often be easier to schedule and participate in than formal practice, which can seem intimidating and foreign to newcomers. If you want to learn more about how to practice these, a local Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course can be a nice introduction to many different mindfulness practices, and has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and pain in a number of studies. What kind of mindfulness will you practice today?