On February 28, 2014, I posted an article entitled Potential Psychological Dangers of Meditation – Especially Relevant for Those with PTSD in which I compiled a number of different potential psychological difficulties and challenges one may encounter when practicing meditation.
I’ve always been a fan of meditation, and have meditated off and on with varied, though generally beneficial results. Although it’s good to be aware of potential difficulties related to practicing meditation, I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from meditating. Many self-therapy exercises for PTSD, such as the Felt Sense and Grounding are, in a sense, forms of meditation.
Last March, I became curious about how meditating daily would affect PSTD. This was the first time since I got PTSD in 2007 that I had just enough self-organization and stability to begin meditating every day. So, I decided to use myself as a guinea pig.
On 3/27/15 I began meditating. I meditated for 23 days (until 4/21/14; I skipped 3 days). In the midst of the chaos and storms that is recovery from PTSD, I sat myself down and became silent. I meditated at totally random times of day and night, and for random lengths of time, but I meditated.
Every day, before meditating, I measured the severity of 11 PTSD symptoms (listed below). Then after meditating, I measured them again.
It was a crazy ride. Every day was different. Many days I collapsed in exhaustion during or after meditating. A number of days something came up inside me that caused dissociation and disorientation. Once I had a vision of violence. Towards the end it took a huge effort to get myself to meditate.
Although it could be rough at times, there were also many days that I had a deep healing experience when sitting – internal shifts, understandings, insights and revelations, just here and there, like angels beckoning to me in the fog – come a little closer, just a little closer… and something will open, something will shift back into place.
Doing this experiment opened my eyes to what amazing results a meditation practice could produce for me at this point in my recovery. I haven’t meditated since the last day of my experiment (7 weeks ago), but I am gearing up to begin again. I feel much more motivated now to overcome my chaos and disorganization in order to sit every day. For me personally, mostly due to PTSD but also somewhat due to personal weakness, self-organization is my mega-challenge that I need to overcome in order to gain all the benefits of daily meditation that I got glimpses of during the self-study.
This article covers the main findings, which represent about 75% of all findings (the other 25% I may go over in a separate article at some point). First I summarize the findings and then I present more in-depth discussion of the study and findings.
Note that although I was as scientific as I possibly could be in the measuring process, this is really a compilation of careful observations of my own reactions to meditation that could be used to develop an actual scientific study in the future. This is an informal, self-administered study or self-tracking experiment. In my opinion, to be considered truly scientific the scales would need to be tested for reliability over time, there should be a group of people from various backgrounds (not just one person), and there would ideally be a control group, as well as many other factors and practices in place to ensure consistency, accuracy, reliability etc.
I am aware of the many official scientific studies done showing positive effects of meditation, mindfulness and yoga on PTSD. I will cover these in another post. The reason I decided to study myself is to have more insight into the available scientific studies once I get better enough to return to school. Many studies focus on results and I am interested primarily in mechanisms – I want to know how and why things happen, not just that they happen. Observing how certain things happen in myself may give me some insights into the mechanisms behind the scientific findings of the research studies done to date. In any event, this experiment was interesting for me, and I gained both healing and self-knowledge from doing it.
Summary of Findings
Meditation reduced my PTSD symptoms slightly. Overall, the most challenging symptoms (those that are also the most closely related to PTSD) were reduced the most by meditating.
The three different kinds of meditation explored produced different results. Mindfulness Meditation increased symptoms slightly while increasing exhaustion significantly, but reduced trigger reactivity, the most impactful symptom, by 7.92 points (all “points” on a 100 point scale).
Pranayama Breathing had the most effect on PTSD Symptoms. Pranayama Breathing reduced all symptoms by 7.9 points, reduced the symptoms the most closely related to PTSD by 14 points and reduced trigger reactivity, the most important symptom, by 17.86 points.
Energetic Management had the most effect on all symptoms (both the more PTSD and more depression related), reducing them on average by 11.75 points and had a little more impact on depression related symptoms than PTSD related symptoms.
The Most Important Finding, to me, was that Pranayama Breathing (or any extremely slow breathing technique done for over 10 minutes while in a meditative, self-reflective, trance-like, open state of consciousness) may be able to heal one of the main underlying causes of PTSD, which is a failure to adjust. Breathing in this manner may be able to do this by encouraging the system to slow down enough while in the correct state of consciousness to make tiny incremental adjustments to un-metabolized memories of past experiences, without the need to re-experience anything traumatic. Breathing exercises in general may help regulate and balance the nervous system and brain so that a person can incrementally approach and take in upsetting or shocking life experiences successfully. Also, there are probably a number of additional beneficial effects from Pranayama Breathing specifically that I did not notice, such as subtle balancing and calming affects on the brain by going back and forth between the right and left nostrils.
The Second Most Important Finding was that Pranayama Breathing may be able to help pull one into their own center which can repair filters that were destroyed by trauma (filters that filter out incoming information effectively), and therefore reduce the power of external stimuli such as triggers, over time restoring a sense of being centered, contained and having healthy boundaries.
The Third Most Important Finding was Mindfulness Meditation produced exhaustion, but also showed some beneficial effects on changing how the mind perceives triggers, breaking apart the “trigger paradigm.” This was due to a number of different factors, for example, opening higher parts of the mind that exist beyond the reptilian brain and rearranging synapses by repeatedly inducing different ways of responding to and perceiving the environment. Exhaustion may be the result of changing the brain’s relationship with triggers and should diminish over time.
The Fourth Most Important Finding was that the 3 main drawbacks or challenges to meditation with PTSD I experienced – significant exhaustion, amplification of dissociation and experiencing visions or flashbacks – really were not that big a deal. Exhaustion was real and significant, and an inconvenience, but I think it was a phase to go through. Becoming dissociated and disoriented at times by facing the inner world was to be expected. Flashbacks were to be expected as well. I think that going through these challenges was well worth obtaining the benefits. It’s definitely a good idea to be aware of and prepared for them before beginning a meditation practice. But, like many areas of life, you need to go through the challenges in order to obtain the benefits you are interested in obtaining.
Nine Potential Benefits of Meditation for PTSD – Summary.
I tried only three meditation techniques for 23 days and discovered a lot of benefits. This article actually doesn’t cover every benefit I experienced, but throughout this article I cover nine potential benefits of doing Meditation while dealing with PTSD. This was such a short experiment; I’m sure there are many more benefits to discover.
I Experienced These Nine Benefits:
- Meditation alleviated my worst PTSD symptoms the most.
Pranayama Breathing —
- Pranayama breathing meditation was the most healing.
- Pranayama breathing meditation helped my system adjust to past experiences / process traumatic memories.
- Pranayama breathing meditation reduced activation from triggers by centering me and healing filters.
Mindfulness Meditation —
- Mindfulness meditation helped me deal with triggers throughout the day.
- Neutral observation of mindfulness meditation helped re-wire my brain’s perception of triggers.
- Mindfulness meditation opened higher parts of my mind (beyond the reptilian brain) leading to new perceptions and emotions.
- Mindfulness meditation combined with Loving Kindness meditation brought emotional healing.
Meditation in General —
- Meditation (in general) helped me break apart the trigger paradigm.
…and here are the 9 benefits with a pretty illustration (click on it to see a larger version):
(summary of challenges encountered is in PART 2)
*end of summary of findings*
It’s been seven weeks since I conducted my study and I just compiled all the data into an Excel spreadsheet. The first thing I notice is that the average numbers representing my experience of PTSD symptoms are all pretty high. That was a terribly difficult time. Just looking it over makes me feel a little emotional, and though I’ve been through a lot, I rarely get emotional these days. Actually, in March and April my symptoms were better than the previous eight years. Sometimes it takes seeing the numbers for the truth of how bad something has been to really hit home.
I guess the number that really stands out to me is the one called “bad night.” For eight years I had horrendous nights. For that 23 days, on a scale from 0-100, the average score was 60.79. That means there were a lot of horrible nights with nightmares, tension, lots of problems and no sleep. I am relieved that after eight years of not sleeping in a way that would allow normal functioning during the day, for the moment I am sleeping normally for the most part. Well then, let’s see what happened.
The way I structured this self-study is as follows:
- I measured the level, in that moment, of my experience of each of eleven PTSD Symptoms on a scale from 0-100.
- I did a meditation technique.
- I measured the eleven PTSD Symptoms again.
Eleven PTSD Symptoms
These are the symptoms I measured:
- shut down
- trigger reactivity
- mental chaos
I added in a twelfth measurement, “bad night.” I did not measure this one before and afterwards. I just measured it one time to have for my records for that day.
Three Types of Meditation
I basically did three main kinds of meditation:
- Energetic Management (4 Days),
- Meditations with a main focus on Mindfulness (12 Days),
- and Pranayama Breathing Only (7 Days)
Energetic Management (with Mindfulness and Loving Kindness at the end)
Energetic Management is a meditation in which one imagines having an energetic connection to the center of the earth, and then a connection to the cosmos. One combines the two energies and creates an egg shaped aura around themselves and then cleans each chakra energetically. It’s actually pretty elaborate.
I learned Energetic Management in 1999 and have been doing this meditation off and on since then. I had been doing Energetic Management for a number of days before beginning the meditation experiment so continued that for the first 4 days, while practicing Mindfulness and Loving Kindness at the end of the meditation on days 2-4. (When I do this experiment a second time it will be more controlled, e.g. one type of meditation 100 percent of the allotted meditation time)
Giovanni Dienstmann, an experienced meditator and meditation coach who manages the excellent resource about meditation www.liveanddare.com, helped me set up this experiment. I am very grateful for his help because I was getting lost in the beginning and his suggestions were perfect. Giovanni suggested doing Loving Kindness, Mindfulness and Pranayama Breathing for the experiment.
On his website, Giovanni describes Mindfulness Meditation as, “The practice of intentionally focusing on the present moment, accepting and non-judgmentally paying attention to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise.” (article at liveanddare.com)
How I practiced Mindfulness Meditation: I maintained a stance of neutral observer of all occurring within and without myself, making everything a part of my meditation. I focused on being a “Neutral, Balanced Observer.” I observed everything with no need to change anything. I accepted everything with no need to change anything. If I got distracted I brought my attention back to applying mindful attention to the sensation of my breath on my nose, as they do in Vipassana meditation.
Pranayama Breathing is from the Hindu Yoga tradition and can be practiced in several different ways. The way Giovanni instructed me to do it is as follows:
- Sit down on a chair
- Close the right nostril with your right thumb. Then inhale slowly through your left nostril.
- Then close the left nostril with your right index finger and open the right nostril by removing the right thumb. Exhale very slowly through the right nostril.
- Then draw the air through the right nostril as long as you can do it with comfort and exhale through the left nostril by removing the right index finger
- This is one round. Do 12 rounds.
Note that for this, breathing in and out should be as slow, soft, steady and long as possible. But don’t force.
The alternate nostril breathing harmonizes the whole nervous system and balances the activity of both hemispheres of the brain. (Source: Giovanni Dienstmann)
NOTE: Giovanni also suggested Loving Kindness Meditation (description here). I did use that here and there but I was very weak with that meditation technique. Bringing compassion in helped to make certain experiences, especially emotional experiences, easier at times when I used it. Because I had just finished Inner Empathy course, at times I used something called “empathetic awareness” as my form of loving kindness. Other times I used “compassion.” I couldn’t maintain it for more than a couple minutes though, so it didn’t become a very big part of this experiment. I do think it has a lot of promise for PTSD because of the fact that if one has PTSD it means they went through horrific experiences and placing compassion and empathy around all those experiences and their ramifications is healing. I just need to practice a lot more before I can truly experiment with it.
Results are “of Interest” for Future Research
Keep in mind that this set of observations reflects a subject of one, and was conducted over a relatively short period of time. Therefore, results should be considered in their capacity to bring up questions and ideas for future exploration and actual scientific research.
I want to repeat this experiment again because there are so many other variables that can come into play during a 23 day time period of one’s life. For example, during any 23 period one can be dealing with various health issues, dietary or exercise changes, any events that happen to be going on at the time, etc. I want to see if the results repeat themselves during a completely different 23 day period.
Precision of Experiment Increased over the 23 Days
Note that there is a lack of precision in the first four days as I got started so anything about Energetic Management (the type done during the first 4 days) I don’t consider to be very significant. I practiced some Mindfulness and Loving Kindness on Days 2-4 after completing the Energetic Management in order to practice it so Days 1-4 were not technically only Energetic Management. By the end of the 23 days I was doing only Pranayama Breathing, so that is a lot more precise as there were no other techniques mixed in.
Times & Temperatures
The shortest time I meditated was seven minutes; the longest was 1 hour and 16 minutes, and the average time was 23.5 minutes. I meditated in the morning on eight days, and in the afternoon, evening or night on 15 days. The earliest I meditated was 7:47 AM and the latest was 11:08 PM. The average outdoor temperature was 57.8 degrees, the lowest was 27 degrees (3/28/15, 7:47AM) and highest 81 degrees (4/9/15 at 1:31 PM) (Of course we had the heat on when it was cold but the AC was broken during the time I conducted this experiment so the high temperatures were similar to the indoor temperatures.)
Meditating Reduced Symptoms Slightly
When taking into account all three meditation methods, there was an overall reduction in symptoms by 3.58 points from before to after meditating.
The beginning measurements on the first 3 days of the experiment averaged 54.42 and on the last three days of the experiment averaged 47, so over the entire course of the experiment there was a reduction of 7.34 points.
Mindfulness Meditation was the Least Positive; Energetic Management (plus Mindfulness and Loving Kindness) was Most Positive. Pranayama Was Also Very Positive.
While Energetic Management (plus Mindfulness and Loving Kindness) reduced symptoms on average by 11.75 points and Pranayama Breathing reduced symptoms on average by 7.90 points, Mindfulness alone increased them slightly, by 1.67 points.
Benefit 1. Meditating Reduced the Worst PTSD Symptoms The Most
The most important symptom I measured was trigger reactivity. This is the symptom that causes the most upset and distress and is associated the closest with PTSD. Trigger reactivity is what destroys relationships, makes a person think they are going crazy, and basically destroys normal functioning in life. This was by far the most important thing to watch. If I could affect this highly disabling symptom, which I have been struggling with for eight years, that would be great.
And actually, out of all symptoms, on average over the entire experiment trigger reactivity reduced the most, by an average of 11.52 points from before to after meditating. I think this is promising!
In terms of the different meditation types, trigger reactivity reduced the most after Pranayama Breathing. Trigger reactivity reduced by 11.25 points after Energetic Management and by 7.92 points after Mindfulness. Trigger reactivity reduced by 17.86 points after Pranayama Breathing Only.
The next three variables that decreased the most are negativity, paranoia and hyperarousal.
These symptoms are all closely related to PTSD. Hyperarousal and paranoia are, like trigger reactivity, fear responses. Hyperarousal, as I measured it, is more of a general stress level in reaction to triggers in general, whereas trigger reactivity measures my reactions to triggers going on in that very moment. Paranoia is my tendency to have an overly fearful and worried perspective on the future. Negativity is a general bleak and pessimistic outlook.
Negativity went down by 10.87 points, paranoia by 10.43 points and hyperarousal by 9.43 points.
This means that meditating had the most powerful effect on the symptoms I struggle with the most, the symptoms the most closely associated with PTSD.
Benefit 2. Pranayama Breathing Had The Strongest Effect on PTSD Symptoms
In general, PTSD symptoms were more affected than depression symptoms were. If you take the 6 symptoms also related to depression – apathy, sorrow, negativity, exhaustion, suicidality and shut down – out of the equation – leaving the 5 more PTSD-related symptoms: trigger reactivity, hyperarousal, paranoia, dissociation and mental chaos, the symptom reduction due to meditation is greater: 6.84 points average reduction for 5 PTSD-related symptoms versus .86 average reduction for 6 depression-related symptoms (and average 3.58 points reduction of all symptoms).
Pranayama Breathing was apparently targeting the 5 “more PTSD-related” symptoms the most. While the other two types didn’t show much difference between more PTSD-related and more depression-related symptoms, when I did Pranayama Breathing Only, I experienced five times the reduction of PTSD-related symptoms versus depression-related symptoms: After Pranayama Breathing Only, The 5 more PTSD-related symptoms reduced by 14 points versus a 2.81 point reduction in the 6 more depression-related symptoms.
This chart shows the reductions in symptoms that had over 10 points reduction after Pranayama Breathing (Note that 4 of the 5 “somewhat more PTSD-related symptoms” – trigger reactivity, hyperarousal, paranoia, dissociation and mental chaos – are represented in these top 6.):
|Symptom||Average Before Meditating
||Average After Meditating
Change in Baseline of Symptoms: Pranayama Breathing also changed my baseline. The average beginning level (Average Before Meditating of all symptoms) from the first day of Pranayama Breathing to the last went down by 5 points.
When comparing Mindfulness Meditation and Pranayama Breathing, we see that Pranayama Breathing reduced the “5 PTSD-related Symptoms” by 14 points while Mindfulness increased them by 1.42 points.
Note that Energetic Management had a greater effect on the 6 depression symptoms than the 5 PTSD-related symptoms. After Energetic Management, the 5 more PTSD-related symptoms reduced by 10.60 points versus the 6 depression-related symptoms that reduced by 12.71 points. (But remember this type of meditation was done for only 4 days so needs to be looked at further.)
Two Ways Pranayama Breathing Was Beneficial for PTSD Symptoms Specifically
As I stated above, Pranayama Breathing reduced the most PTSD related symptoms the most of all three types of meditation. Pranayama Breathing also reduced the the 5 PTSD-related symptoms more than the depression-related symptoms.
Basically there were two reasons for this:
Benefit 3. Pranayama Breathing enabled tiny systemic adjustments to past experiences.
Benefit 4. Pranayama Breathing had a centering effect that repaired filters
Note that I will go into these two benefits more comprehensively in PART 3 because of the length of this article.
Because of these two effects, Pranayama Breathing reduced trigger reactivity and other fear-based symptoms.
This could indicate that breathing exercises are particularly suited to assist with healing from PTSD. And I only did it for 7 days. After really mastering the technique and doing it as a daily meditation for several months the effects could be really powerful and healing.
A lot happened in 23 days! It was like going on a long journey.
Actually let me check how many hours total I was meditating.
I spent 9 hours and 8 minutes meditating.
Anyway, a lot went on…besides the above benefits about Pranayama Breathing, there were five additional Benefits I observed while meditating (4 related to Mindfulness and 1 to the general process of meditation).
4 Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Benefit 5. Mindfulness Meditation Helped Me Deal With Triggers Throughout the Day.
On Day 1 I noticed that Mindfulness creates a separation between triggers and reactions to them that can extend to the rest of the day. “During the day I experienced a very slight sense of the possibility of separating the triggers and reactions to them due to the neutral observation made during the mindfulness portion of the meditation mostly. This is what we want!”
Benefit 6. Neutral Observation of Mindfulness Meditation Helped Change Perception of Triggers.
On Day 8, “I focused mindfulness on sounds the whole time…Then focused on my reaction: tension in chest and stomach, etc. Tried to convince myself that reaction is from brain not sound. Very disconcerting and disorienting to try to shift this, feel like crying. Sound is just SOUND not EVIL? I feel very hot inside now. Very sad. Lots of grief for what I’ve been through.”
That moment when I had an insight that sound is just sound and not evil is very important when considered from a therapeutic standpoint. But this realization was short lived. In this case I just collapsed, as I often did after meditating, and the realization faded away. But all these types of realizations are important because they plant seeds that perhaps can be replicated and reinforced and grow into a new perception.
Benefit 7. Mindfulness Meditation Helped Me Open New Parts of the Higher Mind Leading to New Perceptions and Emotions
On Day 11, Mindfulness Opens My Larger, More Expansive Self which Opens Loving Kindness Automatically
Notes: (Doing Mindfulness) “Focus on body brings up many fear reactions! Hearing sounds brings up many fear reactions. Slowly able to observe with balance and neutrality. Did a tiny bit of extending empathetic awareness (loving kindness) at the very end. This was natural because as I calmed down I was able to observe also my larger, more expansive self. This led to naturally wanting to show others grace, love and compassion. I feel tired out though! It’s work!”
This was one time when Mindfulness really worked. I allowed the neutral observation to calm me down slowly, and I allowed it to open up a higher aspect of myself that had new ways of perceiving myself and others. That higher aspect of myself naturally and effortlessly felt loving kindness towards myself and others.
Benefit 8. Mindfulness Meditation Combined with Loving Kindness Helped Heal Difficult Emotions.
On Day 1 I realized I the combination of mindfulness and loving kindness was important for the emotions of PTSD because “the neutrality of mindfulness seems to be very important when hearing a triggering sound – to hear only sound without any associations – it’s a neutral place. The compassion (of loving kindness) goes to the human suffering – with such overwhelming emotional responses the compassion is important to lower these emotions. But the pure observation is important to recognize the neutral nature of ‘sound.’ They both need to be done together at the moment.” And, “If I had not USED Loving Kindness AKA Compassion towards every difficult sensation and emotion as it arose, the dissociation would have been worse.”
Although I did not go deeply into it since I was weak with Loving Kindness, Loving Kindness coupled with Mindfulness showed promise for PTSD because both neutrality and compassion are helpful for different parts of the internal experience that may be going on. Neutrality helps one feel more neutral and peaceful in relation to emotions, and compassion helps heal emotions, so together they seemed to have the possibility of being beneficial, and a good way to handle challenging emotions that are bound to arise during meditating.
And One Last Benefit from Meditation in General:
Benefit 9. Meditation (in General) Helped Me Break Apart the Trigger Paradigm.
On Day 19 I experienced that a Trigger Was Something I Could Do Too (I Could Sneeze Too) – First Time Ever I Experienced This!
I don’t know what caused this response. On Day 19 I did 3 cycles of Pranayama Breathing, but there is no way to tell if this response was due to something about the breathing or the mindfulness of the previous days. The cumulative effect of 19 days of meditation may have just set something off on this day.
“Regarding trigger reactivity: I feel sensitive, but at the very end of the meditation boyfriend sneezed and I felt LESS. It would have been 10. But I sensed, that could be me sneezing. First time this ever happened.”
This is more profound than it first appears because it’s breaking down the perpetrator victim paradigm that is extremely strongly set up in the brain when experiencing triggers. If I perceive that I can also sneeze, it completely destroys the entire trigger universe. It doesn’t just say that – that guy over there making that threatening noise is not threatening after all. It also says, that guy over there making that (what used to be a terribly scary noise), is so not threatening he could BE ME(!). I know it sounds simple but it’s really huge. To perceive that is really to have a giant perceptual breakthrough. I never had another experience of this after this one time, but I’m hoping I can get this effect again if I do some more meditation practice.
The “trigger paradigm,” in my world, is part of the trauma-based reality. The trauma-based reality is all the ways that all of my reality, everything I see and experience in my reality, has come to be a reflection of previous trauma. Triggers are a natural result of this shift in what “reality” is. The trigger paradigm relies on reality being a construct from past traumas. Meditating poked some holes in the fabric of the trauma-based reality, and therefore the trigger paradigm as well, for a few moments.
Invisible Resources All Around Us
This whole discussion about meditation makes me think about how many resources we actually have but simply don’t know we have. Meditation is free; anyone can do it. If I can just get myself together enough to sit down and meditate even for 10 minutes a day, it’s an amazing resource.
It’s sort of like – recently I found out that eating lemon rinds is good for you. I throw out lemon rinds all the time. They’ve been here all along, I just never knew they were beneficial. How many resources are right in front of our noses, there for our taking, and we’re just blind to them?
AND – I feel compelled to provide you with a Key to the first illustration in this post because each part of that drawing symbolizes something from the article, but that may not be completely obvious— (click on it to see larger)
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.