Mechanistic Pathways of Mindfulness Meditation in Combat Veterans With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

J Clin Psychol. 2016 Apr;72(4):365-83. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22255. Epub 2016 Jan 21.


Objective: This study's objective was to evaluate the effect of two common components of meditation (mindfulness and slow breathing) on potential mechanistic pathways.

Methods: A total of 102 combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were randomized to (a) the body scan mindfulness meditation (MM), (b) slow breathing (SB) with a biofeedback device, (c) mindful awareness of the breath with an intention to slow the breath (MM+SB), or (d) sitting quietly (SQ). Participants had 6 weekly one-on-one sessions with 20 minutes of daily home practice. The mechanistic pathways and measures were as follows: (a) autonomic nervous system (hyperarousal symptoms, heart rate [HR], and heart rate variability [HRV]); (b) frontal cortex activity (attentional network task [ANT] conflict effect and event-related negativity and intrusive thoughts); and (c) hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (awakening cortisol). PTSD measures were also evaluated.

Results: Meditation participants had significant but modest within-group improvement in PTSD and related symptoms, although there were no effects between groups. Perceived impression of PTSD symptom improvement was greater in the meditation arms compared with controls. Resting respiration decreased in the meditation arms compared with SQ. For the mechanistic pathways, (a) subjective hyperarousal symptoms improved within-group (but not between groups) for MM, MM+SB, and SQ, while HR and HRV did not; (b) intrusive thoughts decreased in MM compared with MM+SB and SB, while the ANT measures did not change; and (c) MM had lower awakening cortisol within-group (but not between groups).

Conclusion: Treatment effects were mostly specific to self-report rather than physiological measures. Continued research is needed to further evaluate mindfulness meditation's mechanism in people with PTSD.

Keywords: combat; meditation; mindfulness; posttraumatic stress disorder; veteran.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biofeedback, Psychology / methods*
  • Breathing Exercises / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mindfulness / methods*
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care / methods*
  • Single-Blind Method
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • Veterans / psychology*