Coping Tips for Veterans with PTSD: How Mindfulness Can Help

“Mindfulness is actually a great way to treat pain.”

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Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can cause the mind to flash back or relive memories related to a traumatic event. Veterans with PTSD may feel physical signs of panic like sweating or a racing heart as they have these distressing thoughts and memories. For this reason, mindfulness can be one of the powerful coping tips for veterans with PTSD.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a mental health strategy that can be helpful in many aspects of life. In particular, it can be very effective for people with anxiety disorders (including PTSD).

“Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, focused awareness on the present where we experience what we’re feeling in the here and now,” says Collin Reiff, MD, psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health. “We’re stopping the sensation [of] traveling thought off to other places, and dealing with the experience in front of us.”

This doesn’t mean making your brain quiet or stopping your thoughts—that’s kind of impossible. Instead, you’re changing your thoughts to focus on the world around you. For example, what does your breath feel like as it lifts your belly and chest, and moves through your nostrils? What do you hear around you? How does it feel to clench your muscles and then release them? What does the ground beneath your feet feel like?

How Mindfulness Can Help PTSD

Since PTSD is associated with racing thoughts, mindfulness is a natural coping strategy. “Oftentimes we try to avoid and numb pain and don’t deal with it,” says Dr. Reiff. “What we often learn is that if we deal with it and sit with it, the distress decreases.”

Dr. Reiff suggests using mindfulness to pull yourself out of a flashback. “A flashback is a sensory experience typically characterized by visual, auditory, [and] tactile hallucinations,” he says. “Mindfulness can disrupt that. You’re mindful that, ‘Hey, I’m sitting in my living room. My feet are on the ground, here, in the United States.’”

Anthony Aiello, a U.S. Army veteran, believes meditation is particularly effective for soldiers. Their focus and discipline naturally lend themselves to meditation.

“The effectiveness of meditation is really difficult to overstate,” says Aiello. “When you’re on guard, when you’re on watch, or when you’re sitting out in the midnight hours on some weird duty, you’re basically meditating.”

With practice, mindfulness can help avoid unpleasant and distressing flashbacks and the full dissociative experiences associated with PTSD. Learn more about recommended treatments for PTSD here.