It is the standard alarm on an iPhone, but when Sgt. Nathan Meisner hears it, he is drawn back to the base where he served in Basra, Iraq.
“It sounds just like the alarm when missiles or mortars are being shot into the base,” he said.
Meisner suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and is being treated at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center. He has received an unusual intervention for a military hospital: Transcendental Meditation.
Researchers at Eisenhower and at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University recently published a study that showed that those suffering from PTSD did better on managing their symptoms and medication use than those who did not follow the practice.
Of those service members who chose the meditation, 84 percent stabilized, reduced or even stopped their medication use versus 59 percent of those who did not follow the practice. About 11 percent who meditated did increase their medication use versus 40.5 percent who did not practice the meditation. The response has varied and depends in part on how dedicated the patient is to practicing it, but for some there have been dramatic responses where they have given up their medication altogether, said Dr. John L. Rigg, the director of the traumatic brain injury clinic at Eisenhower.
“To see these people really transforming their lives through the meditative techniques is really phenomenal,” he said.
The technique was recommended to Rigg by a friend, former Kansas City Royals shortstop and second baseman Buddy Biancalana, who put him in touch with the David Lynch Foundation, who got him in touch with Dr. Vernon Barnes at the Georgia Prevention Institute at AU. Barnes, who has been teaching the technique since 1974, had previously done a study showing that teens with pre-hypertension who practiced the meditative technique lowered their blood pressures, and a similar effect might be happening in the soldiers, he said.
The techniques help them calm the mind, and “because the body and mind are very intimately connected, the body responds to that and blood pressure drops,” he said.
“There are many biochemical changes as well that have been shown by previous research, such as stress hormone levels decreasing, and there’s also changes that take place in the electrical activity of the brain and many other physiological changes that take place,” Barnes said.
In this type of chronic stress the soldiers are experiencing from PTSD, there is a “hyperactivation” of the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight response, that leads to that overreaction, Barnes said. Rigg calls it the “animal instinctual reactive survival brain” that is always the fastest to respond.
“Your fight or flight (response) will kick in before you assess what is actually going down,” he said. “That’s magnified a thousand times in a soldier who has been in an environment where somebody is trying to kill him on a daily basis. If they can be clear enough to know that is a reaction not an action, their animal brain is going first, then they can get in touch with that human intelligent brain.”
For Meisner, the problem stems back to his first tour in Iraq from 2009 to 2010 when he worked alone overnight manning a satellite terminal on the back of a Humvee and there were regular attacks on the base.
“It was more than gunfire, it was the mortars and (rocket-propelled grenades) and stuff coming into the base,” he said. Meisner worried that if he were hit no one would find him until the next morning.
Then, there was the adjustment coming back.
“I went from a really secluded area where basically I just had to worry about myself and what’s going on around me and there weren’t people (around) to back to the United States, where there are people everywhere and commotion all the time,” Meisner said. Crowded places such as grocery stores and movie theaters bothered him, and even little things like the phone alarm would set him off. But after years of taking anti-anxiety medication and feeling drained of energy all the time, he signed up for the meditation even though he didn’t consider himself the type to do that kind of thing. Those kinds of “mind-body medicine” techniques the clinic offers, which also include yoga and other stress reduction techniques, take some adjustment for tough-minded military people, Rigg said. “You’ve got to get buy-in,” he said. “It is very non-traditional military-type treatment.”
But the response in the clinic to approaches that don’t rely on drugs has been “very positive,” Rigg said.
The Department of Defense is funding a randomized clinical control trial at the San Diego Veterans Healthcare System to compare the technique to exposure therapy and education. It could take something like that to convince the military to offer the meditation technique more widely.The current study, published in the journal Military Medicine, involved only 74 patients and was a retrospective chart review, Barnes said.
“It points to a compelling finding, but those findings need to verified in a large clinical trial,” he said.
If validated by the military, Barnes said he could see how it would be useful to teach it to soldiers before deployment.
“This may hopefully prevent a lot of problems coming back from deployment,” he said. “We know there is a very high suicide rate among the soldiers. It is alarming, actually. I think it would be a good idea for these techniques to be taught in basic training.” Meisner, who will be medically discharged Jan. 20, said he has been using the techniques for about six months and it is helping him to not overreact and take a pause before responding.
“I can calm myself and know what is the best decision rather than acting immediately,” he said. “I’m less irritable. It provides me a sense of relaxation that carries on throughout the day.”