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University of Wisconsin to study effects of meditation, yoga on veterans’ stress

In the seven years since he finished his stint in the U.S. Navy, Todd Dennis has rarely slept well.

Though never diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, he’s struggled with some of the symptoms, including insomnia and feelings of anger.

Dennis says those symptoms have eased since February, when he began practicing yoga and meditation techniques he learned through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

Beginning this fall, the center will apply the tools of neuroscience – including brain imaging – in studies to determine what if any effect such contemplative practices have on veterans with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

“We’ll be looking at whether they make an impact in their lives, their overall function, their sense of well-being,” said Emma Seppala, a psychologist and research associate, who will oversee the research, some of the first of its kind.

Researchers hope to develop psychological profiles and a kind of tool kit that help them target contemplative practices in ways that are most effective.

The center’s research and its vision will be on display this weekend when it hosts events, most of them private for researchers, collaborators, donors and other supporters.

The only public event, though all tickets have been claimed, will be an unscripted conversation between center founder and director Richard Davidson and the 14th Dalai Lama on the subject of “Investigating Healthy Minds.”

It was a challenge by the Tibetan spiritual leader to Davidson during a 1992 meeting in India that gave rise to the center, according to Davidson. In that meeting, he says, the Buddhist monk called on him to apply the tools of science used to study such things as depression, anxiety and fear to instead study such traits as happiness, kindness and compassion.

“That was a very powerful meeting for me, and one that altered the course of my life and career,” said Davidson, a psychologist and neuroscientist who also heads the university’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience.

Some of the research got under way even before the center’s founding in 2008. In 1999, Davidson brought advanced meditation practitioners, many of them monks from Asia, to Madison to study how the long-term practice of meditation affects the mind. Among the findings, he said, was the presence of unusually high amplitudes of gamma oscillations, brain rhythms associated with such things as focused attention, learning and memory.

The center’s work has drawn significant support, including a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to its study on veterans, it is developing programs for school-age children and individuals transitioning from prison back into society. The student project launches in the fall with a pilot program for fifth-graders in Madison public schools.

“We’re interested in determining if simple practices can be brought into the schools to improve students’ concentration and skill in emotion regulation . . . both of which are necessary for kids to be successful,” said Davidson.

Seppala will be posing the same questions in her work with veterans. The findings, she said, could be used to develop programs to treat thousands of vets who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

“Twenty percent of the 2 million veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, and it’s believed the high suicide rate among veterans may be attributed to that,” she said.

The three-year study will involve 90 veterans in three groups, two of which will participate in either mindfulness meditation or yoga breathing exercises. Those in the third group will continue with their current courses of treatment.

There is, at least, anecdotal evidence that contemplative practices are beneficial for veterans. Both Navy veteran Dennis and Jennifer Kannel, who spent a year in Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said the breathing exercises and meditation practices improved their sleep and sense of well-being.

“That’s one of the big ones vets say, whether they have PTSD or not, that it helps promote sleep,” said Andrew Hendrickson, who leads a yoga-based relaxation series for returning combat troops at the Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee.

“They say it helps them feel at ease, helps them deal with physical pain – all the things you would expect from a mind-body technique.

Hendrickson asks vets in his program to rate their level of distress, on a scale of zero to 100, before and after participating.

“I frequently get people who drop from 80 to 20 or 10,” said Hendrickson, who used yoga to sleep at night while working at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. “One guy with severe depression went from 60 to zero.”

For more information on the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds go to www.investigatinghealthyminds.org.

[via the Journal-Sentinel]

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