The flashbacks and nightmares came often for Robert Singh.
U.S. Army veteran Singh served three tours in Iraq, from 2004 through 2010. He was an Army medic for most of that time. It was a violent, dangerous and intense job. Singh was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007.
After he left the military in 2010, it became obvious that the drugs Singh was prescribed for PTSD weren't helping.
So when Singh learned of VetMind, a novel study being conducted at Oregon Health & Science University to understand how mindfulness meditation helps veterans' PTSD symptoms, he enrolled.
And he's happy he did.
The meditation exercises Singh learned in the study and continues to practice considerably abated his PTSD symptoms, he says. He has fewer flashbacks, fewer nightmares, and when he does have them, he is better able to deal with them, Singh says. And even though Singh still has plenty of stress — he and his wife and two young children live in a homeless shelter in Beaverton — "It's made it so I'm calmer. This has made it easier, and I can function better than I was functioning."
VetMind is still ongoing at OHSU, so the final results aren't in yet. But of the 45 completed participants, many noticed an improvement in their PTSD symptoms and their ability to cope with them, says Helané Wahbeh, N.D., an OHSU naturopathic physician-researcher who is conducting the study.
"Meditation appears to be an incredibly powerful tool for some people," Wahbeh says.
A recent General Accounting Office report found that from 2006 through 2010, 96,916 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were diagnosed with PTSD. But the number of Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans suffering from the stress disorder is almost certainly much higher. As many as 50 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans screen positive for PTSD, with a smaller percentage actually receiving a PTSD diagnosis, according to a 2010 Rand Corporation study.
People can get PTSD when they experience a seriously threatening traumatic event and their response involves intense fear, helplessness or horror. People with PTSD re-experience their trauma over and over again through thoughts, memories and nightmares. They also can experience hyper-vigilance symptoms, like not being able to concentrate, difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, or exaggerated startle response, and avoidance or numbing symptoms, such as avoiding people or places that remind them of the event and not being able to feel a full range of emotion that they could feel before.
Studies also have shown that PTSD is significantly associated with increased suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
Wahbeh says that the emotional processing part of the brain in people who suffer from PTSD is overactive. And the frontal lobe — the part that regulates their emotional response — is underactive.
Mindfulness meditation actually reorients the brain, Wahbeh says, "so the frontal areas of the brain are better able to process over-reactive emotional responses that hinder people from leading normal lives."
VetMind is being funded by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine. VetMind's primary goal is not to prove that meditation can improve PTSD symptoms; past research has already provided some evidence of that in similar conditions. Instead, it aims to find out how meditation influences certain systems in the body, especially the nervous, hormonal and respiratory systems, Wahbeh says.
VetMind requires participants to visit the clinic 10 times: one screening visit, one baseline visit, six training sessions, one endpoint visit and a final check-out. Participants are assigned to one of four groups that practice either meditation, slow breathing, meditation and slow breathing together, or sitting quietly. During the training sessions, participants learn the techniques and then practice at home for 20 minutes per day. Regardless of what group they are in, every participant gets a CD with the meditations at the end of the study.
For Singh, the meditation has helped considerably and also changed how he believes he's combating his PTSD.
Antidepressant and other drugs he was prescribed "were making the symptoms go away, but they weren't fixing the problem," he says. "Whereas this feels more like I'm doing something about it. I'm fixing the problem."
The study will eventually include 100 participants. OHSU is seeking combat veterans between the ages of 25 and 65 to participate. Interested people can call 503-494-7399.
Note to editors: Participants in the PTSD/meditation study are available for media interviews. Contact OHSU News.