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Mindfulness Training Produces Less-Stressed Marines

Marines who took an eight-week course in the basics of mindfulness recovered from stress faster following an intense training session that replicated battlefield conditions.
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Marine Corps insignia at a World War II memorial. (Photo: RX2 Photography/Shutterstock)

Marine Corps insignia at a World War II memorial. (Photo: RX2 Photography/Shutterstock)

Given the epidemic of stress-related disorders among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we clearly need a better way to emotionally prepare military personnel for battle. Fortunately, a group of researchers have come up with a promising one, which adapts techniques from an ancient spiritual tradition.

A study just published in the American Journal of Psychiatry provides compelling evidence that, whether you’re a Marine or a monk, the key to mental peace is mindfulness.

In the results of research we first described two years ago, Marines who underwent an eight-week course in mindfulness recovered more quickly from an intense training session that simulated battlefield conditions. The positive effects were noted using a variety of physical markers, and confirmed with brain scans.

“Mindfulness training won’t make combat easier,” said University of California-San Diego psychiatrist Dr. Martin Paulus, senior author of the paper. “But we think it can help Marines recover from stress and return to baseline functioning more quickly.”

Numerous studies in recent years suggest mindfulness produces mental and physical benefits for many people, including veterans and others suffering from PTSD.

Mindfulness, which is adapted from teachings of Zen Buddhism, is the ability to be fully aware of one’s moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, while observing them from a place of detachment. Numerous studies in recent years suggest this ability produces mental and physical benefits for many people, including veterans and others suffering from PTSD.

But why wait until after emotional trauma has occurred? Believing there was good reason to think such training could create a mental and emotional buffer for soldiers in combat, the research team, which also included Dr. Douglas Johnson and Elizabeth Stanley, recruited members of eight Marine infantry platoons stationed at California’s Camp Pendleton.

Four platoons underwent the standard training regimen to prepare for combat. Members of the other four additionally received eight weeks of mindfulness-based mind fitness training. This consisted of 20 hours of classroom time plus homework: Participants were asked to complete “at least 30 minutes of daily mindfulness and self-regulation exercises.”

The Marines were assessed at the beginning and end of the eight-week program, and again a week or so later, after they completed a highly stressful, day-long training exercise at a special facility designed to replicate combat conditions. This training required them to respond to an enemy ambush.

Afterwards, 54 Marines who had undergone mindfulness training and 53 who did not underwent a series of medical tests. They revealed that the heart and breathing rates of the mindful Marines returned to normal faster than those of the control group members. Those Marines also had lower concentrations of neuropeptide Y, which the researchers call “a well-known stress monitor.”

Brain scans on a subset of 40 Marines also found differences between the two groups. Focusing on several parts of the brain implicated in cognitive control and emotion regulation, the researchers found exposure to emotional faces produced less activation.

This suggests the Marines had successfully moved from the high-alert, fight-or-flight attitude of combat—which can lead to health problems if sustained for prolonged periods—into a more relaxed mode. “That we can re-regulate the activity in these areas (of the brain) with so little training is this study’s most significant finding,” Dr. Paulus told the UC San Diego public affairs office.

So at a time when we’re understandably concerned about PTSD and trauma victims being triggered, perhaps we need to change our emphasis from after-the-fact help to strengthening mental and emotional resilience before bad things happen.