The Impact of Mindfulness on PTSD and Self-Stigma in Veterans: Research Study Review
Over half of the veteran population that screens positive for PTSD or depression do NOT seek treatment, that is a huge failure right off the bat. One of the main barriers causing this lack of treatment/follow-up is the problem of self-stigma. Self-stigma is negative judgments, attitudes, and beliefs that inform or influence a person's view of a situation, such as seeking treatment for a mental health disorder.
What is interesting is that veterans are more likely to seek help for depression and anxiety than they are for PTSD. Perhaps they see depression and anxiety as a real problem that was not their own fault, while they might view PTSD as an inability to fulfill the duties for which they volunteered (e.g. combat). Regardless of the reason, combating the stigma, particularly self-stigma, is a monumental task in helping people to live better lives.
Barr, Keeling, Davis, and Castro (2019) decided to assess the mindfulness levels of veterans (N=577) and compare mindfulness levels to surveyed levels of PTSD, depression, and self-stigma. How do you think it went?
Within this study, mindfulness is defined as "bringing complete attention to present experience and purposely paying attention to present moment experiences without judgment or elaboration." It is developing attention control, being non-judgemental about yourself or your current situation, and accepting where you are, so it is believed that being mindful could act as a buffer against self-stigma of mental illness (e.g. PTSD).
The results were rather powerful in that veterans with higher ratings of mindfulness were shown to have decreased self-stigma through the PTSD pathway. Meaning, the higher they rated on the mindfulness scale, the more accepting they became of their situation with PTSD and the more likely they would be to not just seek treatment but also to be more successful in their treatment (e.g. cognitive-based therapy, exposure therapy, etc.).
How can you apply this information?
1. Develop better personal mindfulness habits by incorporating simple drills each day (See drills posted below). 2. Keep track of the changes in your experience after incorporating mindfulness training and share the information with friends/family who might also benefit from incorporating mindfulness training into their lives. 3. Understand the barriers that can be erected by self-stigma and help others who might be limited by their self-imposed barriers by being open and offering to listen with empathy, without judgment, and with total acceptance.
4 Mindfulness Exercises
Breath Control - Take a few minutes out of your day to work on breath control using diaphragm breathing to complete a simple box drill. (3-12 rounds of 5 seconds inhale, 5 seconds hold, 5 seconds exhale, 5 seconds hold).
You can also work on just taking deep, controlled breaths through activating your diaphragm. When you breathe in, focus on the air filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. During the holds bring attention to your body's sensations. During exhale allow your negative attachments to the present to flow away from you.
Concentration/Focus - You can couple concentration training with any of these exercises but it is all about focusing on a single point, thought, feeling, or idea and holding on to it for as long as you'd like. You can also focus on just being in the present moment and every time you feel your focus drifting to past events or future thoughts, bring yourself back to wherever you are.
Tension Release - One of my favorite drills involves lying supine (on your back) with your arms by your side, palms facing up, and legs straight. Take a few minutes of just breathing and being present to make sure your muscles are completely relaxed, then focus on one part of your body at a time. Flex your toes and hold your flex for 3 seconds and then release, be totally relaxed for 3 seconds before moving up to your feet, then ankles, calves, quads, glutes, abs, etc.. Pay attention to how your body feels while flexing and then what your body feels like when you are releasing the tension. Once you become more skilled at this tension release drill you can use it to release tension in specific body parts that you become aware of throughout the day that feels tense.
Explore - Go into nature and allow the thoughts of your past and future to be as far away as possible. Use all of your senses to appreciate nature and the present moment that you are in. Connecting with nature, being present in the moment, and experiencing aerobic exercise during a hike are all great ways to increase mindfulness, relieve stress, and increase your quality of life. Give these mindfulness training techniques a try and let us know what works best for you!
Reference Barr, N., Davis, J.P., Diguiseppi, G., Keeling, M., & Castro, C. (2019). Direct and indirect effects of mindfulness, PTSD, and depression on self-stigma of mental illness in OEF/OIF veterans. Psychological Trauma: Theory, research, practice, and policy. Advance online publication.
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