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A Transcendental Cure for Post-Traumatic Stress

One study of soldiers showed a 50% reduction in symptoms after eight weeks of meditation.

The Wall Street Journal
Opinion
June 13, 2011
Written by David Lynch and Norman E. Rosenthal

War wounds come in many forms. Some are obvious, such as scars, gashes and amputations. Others, the psychological ones, are less visible but equally devastating. The numbers in this second group are staggering: The military’s latest mental health survey of combat troops in Afghanistan found that 20%—one in five—suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

People with combat-related PTSD often suffer from periods of emotional numbness and depression that may coexist or alternate with intense anxiety and delusional thinking. Their days may be afflicted by flashbacks to traumatic situations. Their nights are often disrupted by sleeplessness and nightmares, from which they awake drenched in sweat as though back on the battlefield.

Yet most veterans with PTSD do not receive adequate treatment for various reasons, including fear of stigma, a dearth of effective treatments, and insufficient government resources. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, recently acknowledged that, “The therapies used for treatment of brain injuries lag behind the advanced medical science employed for treating mechanical injuries.”

Clearly, there is a need for new, creative approaches: Transcendental Meditation, better known as TM, is a promising candidate. An ancient Vedic technique developed in India, TM was brought to the West in the late 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It involves sitting comfortably with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day while thinking a mantra. It does not require adherence to any religious belief system or ritual practices. Yet to date there are over 340 peer-reviewed papers describing the beneficial effects of TM on the mind and body.

The David Lynch Foundation recently hosted an event to help raise funds to teach TM to our wounded warriors returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. We heard from veterans of three wars: Jerry Yellin, a fighter pilot in World War II who flew 19 missions over Japan; Dan Burks, who served in Vietnam; and David George, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Despite differences in age and wartime experiences, these men had two things in common: All suffered terribly from PTSD, and all experienced tremendous relief from TM. Life became once again peaceful and even joyful for them.

What was clear from these men’s stories was how great a toll their symptoms took on their families, as well as on themselves. In a poignant video, Mr. George’s mother described the transformation of her son from a courteous young man into a hard-drinking, depressed and deeply disturbed veteran, who she feared would take his own life or someone else’s.

All that changed when Mr. George began to meditate on a regular basis. According to Ms. George, TM saved her son’s life.

In a study of Vietnam vets conducted by James S. Brooks and Thomas Scarano and published in the Journal of Counseling and Development in November 1985, TM outperformed the conventional psychotherapy of the day. More recently, a pilot study of five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans published in the June 2011 issue of Military Medicine showed a 50% reduction in PTSD symptoms after just eight weeks of practicing TM.

There is a scientific basis for the observed benefits of TM for combat-related PTSD. In several studies, TM has been shown to buffer fight-or-flight responses, which are thought to be overactive in people with PTSD, as evidenced by their hypervigilance, anxiety and exaggerated startle responses.

In addition, TM has been found to reduce blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes—other conditions in which an overactive fight-or-flight response may play a role. In a similar manner, TM may modulate nervous system responses, thereby allowing affected veterans to relax and leave behind the traumas of war.

Regardless of how TM helps, the mounting evidence leads to one conclusion: If a simple, low-cost technique like TM can substantially alleviate the suffering of even some of the thousands of veterans afflicted with PTSD, how can we afford not to give it a try?

Mr. Lynch is a filmmaker and the founder of the David Lynch Foundation. Dr. Rosenthal is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and the author of “Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation” (Tarcher-Penguin, 2011).