Meditation Helps Marines Bounce Back After Combat

Mindfulness meditation before deployment helps body regulate stress, research shows.

Can a little meditation before combat help a Marine fight better, while preventing post-traumatic stress disorder once the bullets stop flying? A new study suggests that "mindfulness training," a form of body and mind control based on Zen Buddhism, can help both during and after combat to lower breathing and heart rate levels, as well as returning the body to normal more quickly.

The researchers tested four platoons of Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and found that mindfulness training made a big difference, and could possibly be used to help reduce the alarming incidence of PTSD, depression and anxiety suffered by many returning veterans.

"The goal was to provide them with a set of techniques that would better help them deal with stressful events," said Martin Paulus, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and an author on the study released today in the American Journal of Psychiatry. "This version of mindfulness was focused on monitoring information from inside the body. It was almost like an inoculation to make them more stress resistant."

Photos: Memorable Images From the Iraq War

Scientists describe mindfulness as a mental state characterized by "full attention to the present moment without elaboration, judgment or emotional reactivity."

Mindfulness training, traditionally practiced through sitting meditation, attempts to cultivate this mental state by quieting the mind of extraneous thoughts. In the study, 147 Marine infantrymen took an eight-week course in mindfulness, tailored for individuals operating in highly stressful environments.

The course included classroom instruction on meditation and homework exercises, as well as training on "interoception." That is the ability to help the body regulate its overall physical equilibrium (homeostasis) by becoming aware of bodily sensations, such as tightness in the stomach, heart rate and tingling of the skin.

After the meditation work, the Marines took part in pre-deployment combat training that included a mock ambush in a simulated Middle Eastern village set up at Camp Pendleton. Afterward, the Marines were tested using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as checked for biomarkers released by the brain that signal stress-related hormone levels.

"They weren't necessarily calmer during the stress," Paulus said. "But they were quicker to recover from the stress once it was over."

One expert not affiliated with the study said it showed promise as a tool in reducing the arousal levels that both soldiers and law enforcement officers feel during stress.

"It could be used to help them with emotion regulation training so they could learn to control their arousal levels and bring their arousal levels down, and that would be good," said Charles Marmar, chair of the psychiatry department at the New York University Langone Medical Center and director of the school's Cohen Veterans Center. "We don't know whether they can do that in real stress situations. That wouldn't reduce PTSD, but it might reduce the risk for PTSD."

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The onset of PTSD is influenced by a variety of factors, including stress hormones, previous history of trauma and depression, and the role of several genes.

While the UCSD/Navy study showed promising results, most Marines stopped meditating once they were shipped out for a one-year deployment, according to Paulus. One challenge is getting the aggressive Marine Corps fighters to accept the idea of quiet meditation.

"The biggest issue is if we can find ways to implement (training) that is consistent with the culture of the Marine Corps," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, which collaborated with UCSD on the study, told Discovery News that military officials have not decided whether to implement mindfulness training.

Researchers believe meditation could help prevent PTSD for those in the armed forces.

Dec. 16, 2011 -

The U.S. war in Iraq officially ended this month with the withdrawal of all military personnel, bringing an end to the nearly decade-long conflict. Close to 4,500 Americans and about 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the war. American taxpayers, for their part, are on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the enduring conflict. Many of the more than 32,000 American soldiers wounded in the conflict continue to need care. More than a million Iraqis were displaced trying to escape the violence. The war may be over, but the healing has only begun. In this slide show, we take a look at some of the most iconic images of the Iraq War.

Shock and Awe Operation Shock and Awe marked the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Heavy bombing lights up the night sky of Baghdad on the second day of the war.

Saddam Hussein Statue The initial campaign proved to be a success. American troops quickly overwhelmed forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. A U.S. Marine armored vehicle tears down a statue of Hussein as both American and Iraqi onlookers cheer. Once the statue is down, jubilant Iraqis ran up to strike the face of the former dictator with their shoes.

Jessica Lynch U.S. Army private first-class Jessica Lynch is rescued by U.S. special forces in April 2003 following her 10-day capture. Lynch, who was only 19 years old at the time, became a national icon following her ordeal. Lynch was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism. The real story slowly emerged.

Mission Accomplished On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush addressed the crew of the U.S.D. Abraham Lincoln and the nation to declare the successful completion of combat operations. A giant "Mission Accomplished" banner was raised during the event. As the insurgency in Iraq heated up the following year, this image would prove to be a headache for the White House.

Hussein Spider Hole In December 2003, American troops uncover the "spider hole" in Ad Dawr in which Hussein was hiding for months following the disintegration of his rule over the country. Hussein was captured, tried by the Iraqis and executed.

Prisoner of War Wearing a black hood on his head, an Iraqi prisoner of war cradles his 4-year-old son while waiting in a holding area for captives.

Fallujah March 2004 marked what would be the beginning of the insurgency that would menace U.S. soldiers as resistance to the American military presence and sectarian tensions boiled over into violent conflict. Following an attack on two civilian vehicles that resulted in the deaths of four contractors, Iraqi men celebrate. The burned and mutilated bodies were dragged, beaten and hung onto a bridge, where Iraqis continued their celebration.

Iraq Casualties Samar Hassan, seen in this photo taken in 2005, knows how quickly tragedy can strike. U.S. soldiers fired on her family, killing her parents, during an evening drive during which they encountered the American patrol.

Abu Ghraib Abu Ghraib prison left an enduring scar on the memories of the Iraqis following Hussein's brutal 24-year reign. Members of the American military maintained the sites cruel legacy by engaging in human rights violations that shook the world. Photos of prisoner abuse and torture, often with American service personnel in the shot, were released in the press in April 2004. The haunting photo of a hooded man seen here arguably is the most enduring image of the American occupation.

Soldier and Child A U.S. soldier cradles an Iraqi child who had been killed in a car bomb.

Soldier Coffins Fearing the reactions of the public as a result of seeing American soldiers killed in action, the Department of Defense prevented this release of any images depicting these flag-draped coffins. A Freedom of Information Act request, however, later compelled their release.

Families Left Behind On Memorial Day weekend in 2007, a photographer snapped what is one of the most compelling views of the toll inflicted by the Iraq War on American service members and their families. Mary McHugh was engaged to be married to James Regan, a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Before their wedding, Regan was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq. During a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, photographer John Moore snapped this photo of McHugh, who had just looked upon Regan's grave for the first time. Regan is interred in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery along with hundreds of other soldiers killed during the war.

The Shoe Thrown During the waning days of his administration in December 2008, President Bush paid a visit to Iraq. During a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Iraqi reporter offered Bush what he called a "farewell kiss," and threw both of his shoes at Bush. Bush dodged the assault and the reporter was swiftly detained by security agents.

Sergeant First Class Justin Hathaway walks through a sandstorm at Al Asad Air Force Base in Iraq. With the Iraq War officially over, both American soldiers and civilians, as well as the Iraqi people themselves, are still grappling with the mixed legacy of the protracted conflict.

Read more of Discovery News’ Best of 2011