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Meditation Can Benefit Our Active Military & Veteran Personnel

Recent studies reveal the brain has plasticity – newly generated neurons can be created to change the architecture of the brain.

Taking that one more logical step, if the mind can be trained, then the undesirable brain changes of the military person can be improved as newly created neuronal connections replace those that have been negatively changed during combat or chronic high stress environments.

Meditation Can Benefit Our Active Military & Veteran Personnel

According to Buddhist philosophy, the mind and body are one, with inner subjective awareness being most crucial. Once you have control of the mind, the body follows.

Science agrees: Recent studies reveal the brain has plasticity – newly generated neurons can be created to change the architecture of the brain.

Taking that one more logical step, if the mind can be trained, then the undesirable brain changes of the military person can be improved as newly created neuronal connections replace those that have been negatively changed during combat or chronic high stress environments.

Julie Rake, MSPAS-PAC, President of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) Executive Committee, explains how meditation helps veterans overcome their traumas and develop the ability to move forward in ways they never dreamed possible.

“If you were running from a bear, the part of your brain where ‘flight or fight’ starts would be fully engaged. When this is experienced on a daily basis, such as during a military combat deployment, the overutilization of this part of the brain reinforces the structures to be expended and causes it to be constantly worked.”

These brain changes, which can be seen under a functional MRI scanner, include more blood flow, activity, and neuronal connections being utilized, making the “stress brain,” aka the amygdala, more utilized. This is commonly referred to as amygdala hijack.

When we are in “fight or flight” mode, the prefrontal cortex goes offline, so to speak. Think of this as the higher brain or executive center, where decisions, plans, and priorities are made. “In a life-or-death situation, the last thing you want to be doing is analyzing the stock market or planning your dinner. Your only focus should be fighting off, or fleeing from, the threat.”

As a result of frequent episodes of reduced blood flow to the executive centers of the brain, the areas that support important higher functions become impaired. Ultimately, functional MRI scanner will detect these negative changes that include decreased blood flow, decreased activity, and decreased grey matter in this brain region.

Recent studies reveal the brain has plasticity – newly generated neurons can be created to change the architecture of the brain.

Over the course of time, these chronic stressors have a debilitating effect on your higher executive brain centers, affecting your ability to reason or handle stress, including:

  • Inability to problem-solve or organize tasks,
  •  Impaired judgement,
  • Reduced emotional control,
  • Rise in impulsive behavior, and
  •  Increased emotional lability – rapid and exaggerated mood changes, including being quick to anger and having difficulty calming down after an emotional event.

For veterans constantly in this state, their brains undergo a physiological change that must be addressed.

Julie explains the concept of the amygdala hijack. “It is as if an airplane is being hijacked by a terrorist – the pilot (the brain’s executive center) has relinquished control to a terrorist (the brain’s amygdala). That’s how the brain changes for people under constant stress, including military, police, even those experiencing daily traumas, including various abuses or constantly fighting with a spouse.”

These stressful emotional reactions activate the stress center, causing the same cascade of stress hormones, and begin to alter the structure and function of the brain.

Enter meditation. “Every time we meditate, the stress center of the brain quiets down, allowing blood to flow freely to the prefrontal cortex. Since the brain is malleable, you can actually heal your own brain.”

She advises that this brain rewiring is a slow process requiring practice every day. “For instance, if you couldn’t play the piano, after doing it for 30 days, you would be much better. Similarly, we can create new neuronal connections for any activity, essentially changing the function and structure of the brain.”

When we meditate, we trigger healthy feel-good brain neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and gaba that modulate anxiety and act as mood lifters. Since meditation puts us in a state of rest, it also allows our bodies to be repaired. “When you have the flu, resting helps you heal quicker. Similarly, when we meditate, our body experiences the benefits of deep rest and can heal and recuperate. During meditation, the body recuperates.”

Julie adds, “We’re wired to feel joy, happiness, excitement, and peace. But we are also wired to feel loneliness, sadness, grief, and anger. We have become experts at seeking out the former and distracting from the latter. Thus, when we’re angry or frustrated, we look for distractions. That’s why so many are addicted to food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, eating, etc. This way, we don’t have to feel these uncomfortable feelings.  Through the practice of meditation, you can slowly begin to get comfortable feeling the things you’ve been avoiding.

“Like civilians, veterans have difficulties processing traumas. Let’s face it, life hurts. But when we numb pain, we also numb joy and happiness. We need to feel it in order to heal it.”

Meditation also has a wide range of physical health benefits, including:

  • Lower heart rate,
  • Lower blood pressure,
  • Lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels,
  • Better digestion,
  • Less musculoskeletal tension,
  • Deeper sleep, and
  • Stronger immune system

Not bad for a practice that can be started with sessions lasting only five minutes per day. What’s more, with reduced stress and more personal reflection you can develop an expanded awareness of your own thoughts, emotions and actions in the world.

If all of your feelings, thoughts, and memories (your conscious) are a huge iceberg, only a small percentage is above the water, visible to yourself and others. However, the majority of the structure (your unconscious) is underwater; meditation provides gradual access to this hidden material.

Many enter the military or police department with a sense of optimism and altruism, wanting to defend their country, protect their community, or make life better for others. However, many of these feelings have been shut down, due to the nature of their work.

Burnout, cynicism, decreased empathy, and brain changes bury the joy that brought many into these heroic professions serving others. Meditation helps them peel away layers of trauma and conditioning to reconnect with a sense of peace, joy, renewed empathy and a sense of wonder they had as youngsters.

Julie Rake says it’s never too late to re-discover the joy, peace and awe that is buried under the rubble of trauma.

If you would like to explore how meditation can improve your life, here are a few tips to get started:

  1. Download the free app “Insight Timer” and search through thousands of guided meditations. Then just plug into headphones and listen.
  2. For more information on meditation, go to:
    https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth
  3. Enjoy a few guided meditations on the video page at
    www.julierakehealing.com
  4. Look for local meditation “meetups” or meditation classes and seminars in your local area.

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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