Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a fairly common mental health condition.
People often associate PTSD with military service, but anyone can develop PTSD after surviving a traumatic event.
As a matter of fact, estimates suggest more than 80 percent of people in the United States will experience some type of trauma in their lifetimes. Among those who survive trauma, over 8 percent will go on to develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:
- Re-experiencing the event. You may have nightmares or flashbacks that leave you feeling as if you’re physically reliving your trauma.
- Avoiding reminders of the event. You may stay away from crowds or refuse to watch movies that involve situations similar to the trauma you experienced.
- Negative thoughts and feelings. You may experience survivor guilt or have trouble trusting other people.
- Heightened arousal. You may startle at loud noises, have trouble sleeping, or feel constantly angry.
If you have PTSD, know you have plenty of options for treatment, including therapy and medication as well as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches like meditation.
Many people living with PTSD find CAM helpful.
In one 2013 study, 39 percent of 599 people with PTSD reported using CAM approaches, including meditation and relaxation techniques, to help relieve symptoms.
Read on to learn how meditation could help address PTSD symptoms, plus some guidance on getting started. You’ll also find more details on other CAM approaches that could have benefit for PTSD.
Though mediation may have benefit as part of a combined approach to treatment, it isn’t considered one of the front-line treatments for PTSD.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). CPT focuses on the ways trauma may have distorted your thinking, such as “It’s all my fault” or “No one can be trusted.” This approach can help you find a balance between honoring your feelings and challenging extreme beliefs.
- Prolonged exposure (PE). PE can help reduce your emotional response to triggers through guided confrontations. For example, in therapy after a car crash, a therapist might have you watch videos of cars and practice calming exercises throughout.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR aims to change how your brain stores traumatic memories so they stop reappearing. An EMDR therapist may, for example, have you make specific eye movements while focusing on a specific memory.
CPT and PE are specialized forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapy that helps you address unhelpful thoughts and actions. While CBT can still help people with PTSD, the review mentioned above found it less effective than its trauma-focused adaptations.
Your care team may also recommend medication alongside therapy to help you cope with PTSD-related stress. They might, for instance, prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This antidepressant helps the mood chemical serotonin travel through your brain more effectively.
Medication can help ease the impact of PTSD symptoms, but it won’t address the underlying cause — that’s where therapy comes in.
Meditation is a practice that can help you focus your mind and gain greater awareness of your:
- thoughts and inner experience
- moment-to-moment needs
What you choose to focus on may depend on the type of meditation you practice, and the various types of meditation may offer slightly different benefits.
Types of meditation that may help ease PTSD symptoms include:
Mindfulness refers to a state of mind where you can acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment. Some people describe this as being an observer in your own head.
Mindfulness meditation makes use of this state to help narrow your focus to the here and now. By boosting your present-moment awareness, you might find it easier to stay grounded in the safer present when intrusive memories return.
In short, taking your mental “eye” off the future may help your anxiety fade in turn.
In mantra meditation, you’ll repeat a sound or phrase aloud to focus your attention. You can choose any affirming phrase or sound that holds meaning for you.
You don’t have to follow any religion or spiritual practice to use mantra meditation, but you’ll likely come across some spiritual language as you learn the basics.
Metta, or loving-kindness, meditation can help boost feelings of love and kindness, both toward yourself and others. During this meditative practice, you might imagine receiving well-wishes from your loved ones and mentally wishing them happiness in return.
You may not find it all that surprising that surrounding yourself with good vibes on a regular basis can boost your mood and help you feel better overall.
A 2013 pilot study of 42 veterans with PTSD suggests loving-kindness meditation may boost positive emotions, ease depression symptoms, and promote self-compassion. These outcomes may help counterbalance the feelings of irritability, sadness, and self-criticism you might experience with PTSD.
According to the
The authors didn’t find much difference between the different types of meditation. They also noted that meditation doesn’t seem to have as large of an effect as the first-line therapy approaches discussed above. Yet it does seem to have comparable effects to medication management, the second-line treatment for PTSD.
In other words, while meditation likely can’t treat PTSD symptoms alone, it may work well as an add-on to traditional treatments.
Interested in giving meditation a try, but not sure where to begin?
Try starting with this basic breathing meditation:
- Go to a place you feel safe and get into a relaxed position. You can sit or lie down, however you feel most comfortable.
- Set a timer for how long you want to meditate. If you’ve never meditated before, 5 minutes may be a good starting goal.
- Focus on your breathing. Listen to the sound of air entering and leaving your mouth. Feel how your lungs expand and contract.
- You don’t have to control the tempo of your breaths. All you need to do is observe your breathing as it happens.
- If other thoughts try to slip in, no need to stress over them. Notice them and then let them pass, keeping your attention on your breathing.
- When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. Does your mind feel any clearer or calmer than it did before?
- If you feel worse, you may want to connect with a therapist before trying it again. Meditation can sometimes bring up uncomfortable thoughts and sensations, so it’s not right for everyone.
If you feel ready to move onto more complex kinds of meditation, these resources can get you started:
Meditation isn’t the only CAM approach used to help address PTSD symptoms. Other approaches to consider adding to your treatment toolbox include:
Yoga relies on a combination of mindfulness, breathing, and stretches to create a sense of calm.
Evidence suggests yoga can help people with PTSD reduce physical and emotional stress.
For example, a
- tolerance for physical sensations associated with fear (such as muscle tension)
- recognition of their emotional state
- ability to accept negative emotions
The control group reported some of these improvements, too. But their PTSD symptoms returned during the second half of treatment, while the yoga group experienced lasting improvement.
In biofeedback, monitors track your biological functions, like heart rate and body temperature, while you perform relaxation exercises.
A biofeedback therapist will have you go through several relaxation exercises as the biofeedback device demonstrates in real time how well each one works. With this immediate feedback and positive reinforcement, you may find it easier to learn these techniques and use them efficiently.
Studies on biofeedback remain limited, but the results seem promising. In one 2015 study, eight participants received either trauma-focused CBT or CBT plus biofeedback. While both groups reported improvement, the group that did biofeedback experienced a significantly quicker reduction in PTSD symptoms.
Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine, involves the use of needles to stimulate specific points on the body. Proponents of acupuncture say this can reduce stress by altering your autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious body functions like heart rate and breathing.
Evidence supporting acupuncture’s benefits for PTSD remains limited. Many studies lack an appropriate control group. A 2018 systematic review considered seven acupuncture studies that did have control groups, but the review authors found that most of these studies still had a “very low” quality of evidence.
This doesn’t necessarily mean acupuncture doesn’t work, of course. Many people find it helpful, so it may be worth trying — particularly since it’s a fairly low-risk approach.
Meditation can help boost your mood, relax your body, and keep intrusive thoughts at bay, so it could go a long way toward helping relieve PTSD symptoms.
If you’re having difficulty coping with PTSD symptoms, adding a meditation practice to your treatment plan might have benefit.
Just keep in mind that meditation typically can’t replace therapy as a first-line treatment. In general, working with a therapist who specializes in PTSD treatment offers the best path toward lasting improvement.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.