Study suggests meditation may help prevent PTSD
NORTHFIELD, Vt. — It is part of a highly regimented daily routine at Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military academy and a cultivator of battlefield leaders for nearly two centuries.
Dressed in combat fatigues and boots, a platoon of first-year cadets — “Rooks” — are up early in their barracks. On the orders of their instructor, the young men and women take their places. At 0800 sharp, they sit on wooden chairs in a circle and begin — to meditate.
The first-of-its-kind training is part of a long-term study to determine whether regular brief periods of silent, peaceful consciousness can improve troops’ performance. Ultimately, researchers hope the transcendental meditation training might be made available across all branches of the military to help inoculate troops against acute post-traumatic stress disorder, which has reached epidemic proportions and is blamed for a record number of suicides in the ranks.
For an institution that demands that incoming cadets exhibit physical and mental toughness, meditation training is a radical approach. The broader military culture had long associated meditation with a leftist, antiwar philosophy. Known by its shorthand, TM was widely introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hindu leader who once served as the spiritual guru to the Beatles.
“I was very skeptical at first,” said Norwich president Richard W. Schneider, a retired Coast Guard admiral who is among several university officials who have also been trained in the technique. “I’m not a touchy-feely guy.”
But the preliminary results of the study, now in its second year, surprised even its lead researchers. They have been methodically tracking the dozens of participants and several control groups of non-meditating cadets through detailed questionnaires as well as brain wave and eye scans to measure levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
“All those things decreased significantly,” said Dr. Carole Bandy, a Norwich psychology professor overseeing the project. “In fact, they decreased very significantly.”
Positive traits such as critical thinking and mental resilience improved, according to preliminary findings shared with the Globe that Bandy and her team plan to publish next year.
The project has garnered high-level attention from the Army.
“Becoming more psychologically fit is just like becoming physically fit. It is better to do it before you are injured,” said retired Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, a surgeon who until recently ran the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and visited Norwich three times to be briefed on the work. “There seems to be no question that meditation is, frankly, good for you. I am very encouraged by the Norwich University study.”
Not everyone at Norwich is on board. Top university officials acknowledged that a few people in the university community have privately snickered over how meditation is “not Norwichy,” though there has been no formal opposition from the faculty or board of trustees.
But Reverend William S. Wick, the university’s chaplain, remains concerned that its practice could undercut the school’s Judeo-Christian foundation.
“Contrary to what is claimed by its advocates and presenters, transcendental meditation is not a neutral discipline but is, rather, philosophically, spiritually, mystically, and religiously based — having Hindu monism and a pantheistic world view as its underlying base,” Wick told the Globe in an e-mail.
Some ‘jokes about nap time’
The participating cadets, however, seem to share a single-minded commitment to the meditation sessions, which for now are voluntary.
Each of the six men and three women who attended the first of their twice-daily meditation sessions last week sit silently, focusing thoughts on their mantra, a word or phrase privately assigned to them by their instructor in August.
For the next 20 minutes they sit motionless, some with their arms crossed, others with hands resting in their laps. Some can be heard breathing, others cannot.
“Ok, let’s take a few minutes and then open our eyes. Take your time,” David Zobeck, one of two meditation instructors, breaks in.
The approach is one among a variety of meditation techniques that date back thousands of years. The periods of silent reflection are intended to nurture what practitioners call “restful alertness” to improve overall mental health.
Zobeck, an Air Force veteran, works for the David Lynch Foundation, founded in 2005 by the film director to provide TM to adults and children suffering from PTSD. Since 2010, it has donated nearly $1 million to teach the technique to military veterans and their families.
The foundation is funding Norwich’s program.
“It seems like some wacko thing from the Far East but there has been so much research done, including on veterans suffering from PTSD who say they have got their life back again,” Lynch, who has been meditating for four decades, said in an interview. “It’s not a hippie thing, it’s a human being thing.”
“It’s like putting on a flak jacket against stress,” he added. “The things that used to almost kill you in the stress department have less power. For a soldier this is money in the bank.”
The meditating cadets at Norwich agree. “At first it’s silly,” said Chandler Camlin, 18, a first-year cadet from Stamford, Conn. “But at the end of that 20 minutes, you feel refreshed.”
“It feels like a whole tremendous thing off your chest,” said Dayne Valencia, 19, of Houston. “You feel so much lighter — like you told the truth after holding back for a long time.”
Before she arrived at Norwich, said Hana Kita, 18, of Titusville, N.J., “I had less activities and I was more tired. I feel less stressed now than I did back home.”
Yet the meditating cadets have also faced ridicule from fellow Rooks.
“There are a lot of jokes about nap time,” said Anthony Russo, 18, of Rockland.
But much of the razzing has dissipated since the group recently outperformed the 17 other Rook platoons in the so-called “culminating event,” a grueling competition requiring tests of mental and physical resilience. Said Russo: “That pretty much speaks for itself.”
No help with mental health
More senior cadets who have participated in the study bring a unique perspective. A few of them also serve in the National Guard or Reserves and have already been to combat.
Against the din of upperclassmen berating three Rooks running to class, Shea Burke, a 21-year-old junior who returned in February from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan, described his reaction when he learned about the study in the fall: “Are you serious?”
But the Marine Reserve lance corporal volunteered to participate. He now believes it has helped him rejoin campus life after a stressful deployment.
“You are still twisted and trying to come out of it,” he said, wrapping the fingers of both hands together and turning his hands back and forth. “It re-centers yourself.”
The native of Amherst, N.H., said he could have used it in Afghanistan and knows of other troops who need it now that they are back.
“Too many buddies are turning to substances,” he said of those who are relying on drugs and alcohol to relieve tension.
Senior Sam Lieber, 21, who was taught TM last year, said he meditated while he was completing reserve officer training last summer aboard the destroyer USS Chafee in the Pacific Ocean. “I still do it regularly when I need to recharge,” the Hampton, N.H., native said.
John Dulmage, a Norwich researcher who served in 1991 Persian Gulf War, said he wishes he had been exposed to the technique much earlier.
“They never really helped us with our mental health,” said Dulmage, 67, a 23-year Marine Corps veteran from Barnard, Vt., who is a trained nurse and the study’s chief data cruncher. “We want to send people to war whole and for them to come back whole.”
He said his recent exposure to TM has helped him cope with the loss of his wife to a debilitating disease. “It sorts stuff out for me,” he said.
Among the research project’s most influential boosters is retired Army chief of staff General Gordon R. Sullivan, a Norwich graduate and Boston native who is now chairman of Norwich’s board of trustees.
“It is a way to get out in front and expose them, in a prophylactic way, to help them handle stress before the fact,” said Sullivan, who runs the influential Association of the United States Army in Washington. “Whatever skepticism I may have had was dampened.”
Later in the training day last week, some cadets got a small taste of what might lie ahead after they receive their commissions as officers in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.
After a drill on the football field, some gather in a corner of the fieldhouse for a role-playing exercise designed to test their critical-thinking skills. “You have two soldiers wounded,” the instructor tells them. “One shot in the head, no pulse. Another soldier is shot in the chest.”
Consulting their handouts, the cadets have to make some quick decisions.
“We have spent nearly 200 years preparing them physically to be military leaders,” said Schneider. “What we have never spent any time doing is making them emotionally prepared for battle. We are waiting until the end of the fight. Why not give it to them before they get into the fight?”
Schneider acknowledged that it is “going to take years to track these guys to see how they do.”
But he doesn’t want to wait that long. “My plan is to make it available to anyone who wants it,” he said. “I’m not yet to the point of requiring it [but] if this works I will be shouting from the rooftops.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sam Lieber’s class. He is a senior.