PTSD therapy without the trauma works, study shows

David Heitz

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The trouble with trauma-focused therapy for PTSD is you must talk about the trauma.

Sometimes the pain of talking about it is too much to bear. Many people do not seek treatment for PTSD for this reason. Others don’t want to take addictive benzodiazepines or other medications for anxiety.

But a study published today in Journal of the American Medical Association shows that “loving kindness meditation” – using pleasant thoughts to help the brain deal with effects of trauma – is effective in treating PTSD.

Dr. David Kearney of VA Puget Sound Health Care System and colleagues conducted the research on military veterans. Almost 200 veteran volunteers with PTSD were split into two groups. One received traditional cognitive processing therapy and the other used loving kindness meditation.

“Among veterans with PTSD, loving-kindness meditation resulted in reductions in PTSD symptoms that were non-inferior to group cognitive processing therapy,” Kearney and colleagues concluded. “For both interventions, the magnitude of improvement in PTSD symptoms was modest. Change over time in depressive symptoms was greater for loving-kindness meditation than for cognitive processing therapy.”

What is loving kindness meditation?

“In loving-kindness meditation, one calls to mind a particular person (e.g., a good friend) and silently repeats phrases that invoke goodwill, such as ‘may you be safe,’ ‘may you be happy,’ and ‘may you be healthy,’ the authors explained. “The practice gradually expands to include oneself and those who have caused difficulty or harm.”

There’s more to it than just thinking happy thoughts. “Veterans were asked to notice thoughts and feelings elicited by the phrases with an attitude of kindness, curiosity, and nonjudgment, regardless of content,” Kearney et al reported. “Class sessions began with a brief mindfulness (weeks one and two) or loving-kindness (weeks three through 12) meditation followed by discussion and additional loving-kindness meditation practice.

“Educational materials describing the relationship between meditation, PTSD, and depression were provided. Homework consisted of 30 minutes of meditation six days per week using compact discs and informal loving-kindness meditation practices in daily life.”

All in all, loving kindness meditation is a lot of work. But it was better attended than the cognitive processing therapy.

Difficulties among sample of veterans

The study sample illustrates just how difficult it is living with PTSD. Under “adverse events,” the authors report, “Serious adverse events included one suicide attempt in the cognitive processing therapy arm and two deaths (due to cancer) and one inpatient psychiatric admission (bipolar mania) in the loving-kindness meditation arm.

“No serious adverse events were deemed study related. Other adverse events included one disenrollment due to risk of harm to others, four incidents of suicidality with intent or plan in the cognitive processing therapy arm, and one seizure in the loving-kindness meditation arm.”

The number of veterans who got significantly worse under the therapies were three for PTSD and 15 for depression in the cognitive processing therapy group and four for PTSD and seven for depression in the loving-kindness meditation group.

Loving-kindness meditation acceptable to veterans

The study shows that loving-kindness meditation not only is effective among veterans with PTSD but popular.

“Change over time in PTSD symptoms was not found to be superior for either loving-kindness meditation or CPT at any time point, but change over time in depressive symptoms was superior for loving-kindness meditation compared with CPT at all time points,” the authors revealed.

“Those randomized to loving-kindness meditation also attended significantly more treatment sessions, suggesting that loving-kindness meditation was as acceptable as CPT to veterans with PTSD among our recruited sample; however, only 54 percent and 60 percent of participants attended six or more sessions of CPT or loving-kindness meditation, respectively.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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