Mindfulness in Veterans
A recent U.S. census estimates approximately 18 million veterans and 2.1 million active-duty and reserve service members3. These men and women have willingly risked their lives to defend and protect their county and deserve the utmost honor and respect.
But engaging in active combat, witnessing war-torn environments, or being held prisoner of war is among the most intense experiences of a veteran’s life. So it’s not surprising that, upon returning to civilian life, veterans face a wide variety of mental health challenges. These challenges may include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse are common.
Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based therapies can offer veterans powerful support for healing war’s mental and emotional wounds. Therefore they can more comfortably integrate back into their civilian lives.
And therapies like these are complementary and integrative health approaches in a veteran’s VA medical benefits package. Mindfulness practices are an excellent resource for veterans struggling with mental health disorders.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is one specific kind of meditation practice. Other words for “mindfulness” are presence and loving awareness.
While meditation, including mindfulness, has its roots in eastern cultures such as India, its popularity in the United States has, in recent years, significantly increased. A National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health survey revealed that 14.2% of adults in the United States practiced meditation within the previous twelve months6.
What is Meditation?
The term “meditation” refers to practices for training the mind and tuning into the constant aware presence that is the background of all physical, mental, and emotional experiences. The most general purpose of meditation is to develop an abiding sense of well-being throughout life’s activities. Meditation practice can employ various techniques to promote relaxation, improve concentration, enhance energy, and develop compassion and insight.
Someone practicing meditation will learn to pay attention in a new way and notice things they haven’t seen before. Instead of being lost in or overwhelmed by thoughts, feelings, or perceptions, they will learn to cultivate mindfulness (aka “presence”). Meditation will allow them to rest comfortably in the unbeatable safety of the core of their being—regardless of what’s happening in their body, mind, or external world.
Mindfulness & Keeping Something "In Mind"
Mindfulness means simply to keep something in mind or remember it. When a person is mindfully aware of something, they keep it in mind, moment by moment. In other words, mindfulness is a systematic training of attentional skills.
To be mindful of the breath, for instance, is to keep the breath in mind. Mindfulness is about remembering to pay attention to how the inhalations and exhalations sound and how it feels in the body. Being mindful of breath allows interest and attention to be fully absorbed by the breath.
This ability to remain gently focused on things deemed essential or relevant requires the ability to be alert, watchful, and committed to doing the best possible. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction meaning pulling away attention from what is decided upon.
An essential aspect of mindfulness is the ability to remember moment by moment and return to paying attention to the focus. And to also notice when the mind has wandered into perceiving or daydreaming about something else. The moment distraction is noticed, mindfulness can reappear.
Other everyday objects can be included in mindfulness practices along with the breath. Mindfulness practice can also be applied to a specific activity, for instance, eating or walking. A veteran can learn to practice walking meditation, how to mindfully consume their meals, and how to mindfully interact with other people4.
Mindfulness practices can include:
From Moments to Streaming Minfulness
As one becomes more and more familiar with mindfulness practice, the moments of mindfulness will gradually transform into an uninterrupted stream of mindfulness. And this streaming, flowing mindfulness is both deeply healing and deeply enjoyable.
Over time, mindfulness practice enhances concentration, clarity, and equanimity. And it nourishes the capacity for nonjudgmental and non-interfering observation. Mindfulness practice has the power to enhance day-to-day wellbeing; support freedom from psychological suffering, and nourish the flowering of deep insight.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness
In classic Buddhist texts, mindfulness practice is described in four foundations. These four foundations of mindfulness describe an ever-deepening process through which healing, transformation, and insight can be supported. As such, they provide an excellent framework for mindfulness-based therapies.
1. Mindfulness of the Body
The first foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of the body—is about bringing awareness, focus, or attention to bodily sensations, including the sensations associated with breathing.
2. Mindfulness of Feeling
The second foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of feeling—is about noticing the affective tone (i.e., pleasure or displeasure) that tends to arise about sense objects. For instance, when a person perceives a tree, notices the emotion of sadness, or becomes aware of thoughts of jealousy. There is an almost immediate sense of these sensations or perceptions being pleasant or unpleasant.
“Feeling” refers to the sense of pleasure, displeasure, or neutrality associated with a particular experience. To be mindful of these feelings is to become more consciously aware of these affective designations.
3. Mindfulness of the Mind
The third foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of the mind—is about noticing how the mind works in more detail. With this foundation, a person explores how a mind under the sway of disordered thinking creates a specific life experience, a particular way of knowing oneself in the world.
4. Mindfulness of Mental Phenomena
The fourth foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of mental phenomena—is an even deeper exploration of the inner landscape of mental experience and includes mindfulness of mental objects. In some aspects of mindfulness practice, individuals are instructed to simply notice when a thought arises. They are then taught to be mindful or lovingly aware of it and then allow the thought to dissolve without interference.
But the deeper and more complete practice of mindfulness goes beyond passive observation into the realm of active contemplation and transformation. Specifically, one is encouraged to distinguish between mental states that are detrimental to health and happiness; and those that are supportive of health and happiness.
When people become aware of mental states that impact their health, wellness, and clarity, they are encouraged to relax their attachment. They are eventually taught to abandon these states completely. When a person becomes mindful of mental states that support their health, wellness, and clarity, they are encouraged to cultivate, develop and strengthen them.
Being mindful of mental phenomena involves observing their presence, their absence, their arising, and their passing away and noticing what happens in the person’s experience when these mental phenomena are related in a particular way. At this point, the mindfulness practice has evolved beyond an agenda of passive observation of phenomena and into the realm of active healing and transformation. This makes it a particularly powerful tool for veterans seeking to heal the psychological wounds of war.
Benefits of Meditation & Mindfulness
One of the most well-documented effects of skillful meditation practice is stress relief. Meditation can calm the sympathetic nervous system and restore the parasympathetic “rest and repair” functions. While this would be reason enough to cultivate a daily meditation practice, meditation has even more advantages.
Physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation and mindfulness include8:
Benefits for Veterans
Several studies have suggested that meditation and mindfulness may help reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and help people recover from Substance Use Disorders6. A mindfulness practice can offer support in relating to physical pain; and coping with symptoms related to withdrawal from nicotine, alcohol, opioids, or other drugs.
Mindfulness practice can help dissolve anxiety and relate effectively to flashbacks, nightmares, or panic attacks. So, mindfulness can be an extremely effective tool to support healing for veterans suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, or physical pain.
Mindfulness Meditation for Veterans
Mindfulness practice can offer veterans support relating to psychological conditions such as PTSD, complex PTSD, and depression, as well as Substance Abuse Disorders. The Veteran’s Association covers a variety of mindfulness-based practices and therapies as part of its medical benefits package.
Studies have shown that mindfulness-based therapies are safe and beneficial for veterans. Therefore, the Veterans Association’s VHA Whole Health System now includes therapies related to mindfulness9.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Jon Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the 1970s. It was developed to treat patients struggling with physical and/or mental illness linked to high-stress living.
Mr. Kabat-Zinn incorporated the insights of modern western science into traditional Buddhist principles of mindfulness and meditation1. He used this to develop a powerfully therapeutic (and entirely secular) approach to reducing stress. MBSR is a program that teaches mindfulness meditation. While also providing discussion sessions and other tools for helping people apply what they learn to specific stressful situations.
While each person’s experience of MBSR is unique, the method is rooted in a unifying set of principles, which include:
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) integrates mindfulness practices with cognitive behavioral therapy. It was first developed to help prevent relapses in people with recurrent depression. But it is now applied successfully to a wide variety of psychological conditions. It is also an excellent tool for veterans struggling with mental health disorders or problems integrating into civilian life.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is rooted in the exploration of core beliefs, dysfunctional assumptions, and habitual negative thoughts—and how these might be transformed. MBCT is oriented similarly, but with mindfulness practice as the foundation.
With techniques drawn from western and eastern contemplative traditions, an MBCT therapist cultivates the client’s ability to:
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) is a treatment approach developed at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington2. It was designed specifically for individuals in recovery from addictive behaviors. MBRP practices can foster increased awareness of triggers, destructive habitual patterns, and habitual reactions that seem to control the life of the recovering addict.
The mindfulness practices in MBRP help the person recovering from addiction to pause, observe present experience, and bring mindful awareness to the range of choices available in every moment. Over time, they learn to respond in ways that support their health and happiness rather than reacting in ways that are detrimental to their health and happiness.
While Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy was designed to help prevent relapse into depression, MBRP was designed to help prevent addiction relapse. As such, it is helpful in aftercare programs to help recovering addicts maintain their sobriety and long-term wellbeing. For veterans in recovery from addiction, MBRP can be a great resource.
Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC)
Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) integrates the skill-sets of mindfulness practice and self-compassion to foster emotional intelligence and resilience7. A core principle of MSC is that mindfulness is the first step in emotional healing. When clients have an attitude of openness and curiosity, they take the first step on the path of healing. The principle of self-compassion involves embracing complex thoughts and feelings with kindness, sympathy, and understanding—to soothe and comfort ourselves when we’re hurting.
Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional wellbeing. It increases happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can make it easier to maintain healthy lifestyle habits. Being mindful and compassionate leads to greater ease and well-being in a client’s daily life. For veterans suffering from addiction and/or mental health disorders, Mindful Self-Compassion is a therapeutic modality that can effectively support the healing process.
Mental Health Help for Veterans
Veterans’ most well-known mental health concerns are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression5. Although these mental health concerns are most prominent, other issues such as anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse, and interpersonal violence can be equally problematic among veterans.
The unique experience of veterans requires unique approaches to each veteran’s unique experiences. But existing therapies such as those described above can provide essential tools for the healing journey.
The essential components of human experience—perceptions, thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions—are the same for all humans. And these fundamental aspects of human experience are the foundation of mindfulness-based therapies, which can play a vital role in a veteran regaining vibrant health and wellness
Veteran Mental Health Treatment with Meditation
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that occurs as a result of witnessing or experiencing trauma. PTSD Awareness month takes place throughout the month of June and is used to help bring attention to PTSD symptoms and treatments. PTSD can be treated with a customized plan of therapy and medication as needed.
If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, reach out to Solara Mental Health today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our mental health program.
- Bhikkhu, T. (2008). Mindfulness defined. Access to Insight. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/mindfulnessdefined.html
- Bowen, S., Chawla, N., Collins, S. E., Witkiewitz, K., Hsu, S., Grow, J., Clifasefi, S., Garner, M., Douglass, A., Larimer, M. E., & Marlatt, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for substance use disorders: A pilot efficacy trial. Substance abuse. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3280682/
- Bureau, U. S. C. (2021, October 8). Census Bureau releases New Report on Veterans. Census.gov. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/veterans-report.html
- Hanh, T. N. (2021, March 30). Walk like a buddha. Tricycle. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://tricycle.org/magazine/walk-buddha/
- Inoue, C., Shawler, E., Jordan, C. H., & Jackson, C. A. (2021, May 24). Veteran and military mental health issues. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34283458/
- NCCIH Staff. (2022, June). Meditation and mindfulness: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know
- Neff, K. (n.d.). The mindful self-compassion (MSC) program. Self-Compassion. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://self-compassion.org/the-program/
- Sharma, A. (2008). What is spirituality? . Royal College of Psychiatrists. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/what-is-spirituality-maya-spencer-x.pdf?sfvrsn=f28df052_2
- VA Staff. (2021, July 6). Whole Health – Meditation. Veteran Affairs. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTH/professional-resources/Meditation.asp