With its emphasis on cultivating tranquillity, meditation might seem like an odd fit for the military. But the researchers say that a particular type, known as mindfulness, may prove to be an important therapeutic tool to help reduce stress and increase focus.
Practitioners of mindfulness meditation focus on a single thing happening in the moment, such as breathing, for a set period of time, generally at least 15 or 20 minutes. Studies have found that for regular practitioners, mindfulness has physical and emotional benefits.
“It’s clear that mindfulness can lower stress in many contexts,” says Elizabeth Stanley, an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University who has been involved in the studies and began practicing meditation to deal with her PTSD. “We think it can work for soldiers dealing with the extreme stress of combat.”
Stanley says she believes meditation should be as much a part of basic training as learning to fire a weapon or march in formation.
The research by Stanley and her colleagues has attracted the attention of some military leaders, including the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan.
A former Army military intelligence officer, Stanley is not a scientist, but her research collaborators are psychologists and neuroscientists. In 2010, they published the results of a pilot study that found that mindfulness protected soldiers from anxiety and other stress-related negative emotions. They have completed two other studies whose findings have not been published.
The pilot study focused on 60 Marine reservists who were going through two months of intense training before being deployed to Iraq. Some received regular instruction in mindfulness meditation and were asked to meditate for 15 minutes a day; the other group got no meditation training. The researchers found that after two months, the meditation group reported significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety.
The study found that mindfulness training had another benefit: It made the soldiers smarter. Specifically, it improved their capacity to retain new information, which is known as expanding their working memory. Participants were asked to remember letters from the alphabet while doing simple arithmetic. Those who had received the mindfulness training and meditated every day did significantly better at this task than those who didn’t receive such training, and those who meditated more did better than those who meditated less.