Space & Innovation

How Transcendental Meditation Eased Symptoms of Trauma in Female Prisoners

A small pilot study showed that Transcendental Meditation could work as an effective therapeutic aid for women inmates.

At the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore., nearly a dozen female prisoners dressed in faded jeans and loose blue shirts close their eyes and inhale. And then exhale.

They are gathered in the prison's chapel, guided by the voice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) instructor Blaze Compton, who gently instructs them to begin meditating. They close their eyes and think of their own personal mantra, a meaningless sound that enables their minds to settle down to a quieter state. As they do, a calm envelopes the room. Within minutes, their breathing slows even further and they begin to experience quiet minds, deep physical relaxation. Together, they temporarily transcend the physical confines of jail for a more peaceful state of mind.

This scene played out twice a day over the course of four months while these women participated in the first study of its kind to explore whether Transcendental Meditation could reduce the stress of past traumas in female inmates. The results, published this week in "The Permanente Journal," show what similar research has shown on other groups, including veterans and refugees, that a practice of TM significantly reduces the symptoms of trauma and could work as a therapeutic aid.

"TM has been repeatedly shown to transform the lives of inmates and contribute to a greater sense of freedom, optimism and an overall improved quality of life," Sanford Nidich, who led the study and serves as director of the Center for Social and Emotional Health at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, told Seeker. "Practice of the TM program produces positive changes in the brain functioning of individuals, resulting in more coherent and orderly thinking, improved executive functioning and less reactivity to stress," he said.

For the study, Nidich enlisted a total of 22 inmates who had at least four months left of incarceration. Eleven subjects were randomly assigned to either the TM group or a wait-list control group that went through the program at a later date. The average age of the women was 44.5 years, and 80 percent of them were white.

Twice a day, the inmates practiced simple meditation techniques for 20 minutes and some attended 30- to 40-minute group sessions twice a week over the course of four months.

Female inmates that practiced the TM program showed a significant reduction in total trauma symptoms such as the shock of disturbing memories, thoughts, and dreams, of repeatedly reliving trauma and physical reactions when being reminded of the trauma experience. The inmates also reported that the meditation reduced the trouble they had falling asleep and staying asleep as well as eased feelings of jumpiness or being easily startled.

The study comes at a time when women are becoming the fastest growing population in U.S. prisons, and carry the burden of proportionally higher amounts of traumatic experiences, from "sexual and emotional abuse to lifestyles with lots of drugs and alcohol and lack of a formal education," Compton said.

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Compton admitted that his role instructing the female inmates introduced some hurdles. For example, one inmate came back to him following her first session and told him that she heard that meditation is the work of the devil. "I never saw her again," he said.

However, many of the other females discovered great benefits from practicing TM, and Compton periodically witnessed the women with "tears in their eyes and a content smile" as they meditated. He also saw small bursts of "cheerful relief, happiness and gratitude" during sessions.

At the end of the study, the impact on some prisoners was quite profound. One woman was taken off of her depression medication fairly soon into the study, while another had her depression medication reduced. Another inmate was able to overcome her insomnia and night terrors by using what she learned during her TM sessions.

In a report that Compton shared with Seeker, one female prisoner involved in the study said that she has experienced "emotional releases of old painful memories" and when practicing TM, "felt very calm and somewhat 'over' the incidents." Although she suffers from chronic pain from arthritis and joint deterioration, she noticed a decrease in her pain level since practicing TM.

Another inmate, who continues to practice, said that when she misses her daily TM sessions, she "slips back toward my depressive behavior almost immediately." Yet another shared that her thoughts are "less and less painful." She added: "I've been relaxed and overall calm. I've stopped taking Prozac (with the doctor's approval), and I am not depressed at all."

Compton hopes to conduct more studies with a larger number of participants over a longer period of time.

"I have been blinded by rage for the last four years almost nightly, until now," another inmate said. "I am able to feel a real sense of peace now and happiness - even in prison."

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