Recently John Christoffersen wrote in the Huffington Post that mothers are still struggling to calm their children after the Sandy Hook disaster. Even though the children have been moved to a different school and have received the best counseling available, the children and teachers are still spooked by loud noises, which make them think another intruder has entered their school. Nightmares and trouble concentrating are other problems that linger.
Between 8 to 15 percent of those who experience traumas such as mass shootings develop PTSD, said Russell Jones, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech who counseled survivors of a mass shooting at his school. Fortunately, about half of them no longer have the symptoms after three months, he said.
But what about the other half, who, like many of our veterans with PTSD, struggle to recover years later? And what about the thousands of kids in our country who witness shootings in their own neighborhoods and suffer silently from PTSD without any treatment or help from the community or school?
I was discussing this article with my husband, who is professor of Sanskrit at Maharishi University of Management (MUM), while on our morning walk the other day. He pointed out that the experience of PTSD—where sounds and smells trigger memories of a stressful event and even create the same fight-or-flight reaction—was described by Shankara, a great teacher of ancient India who lived more than two thousand years ago. Shankara called it “superimposition” (in Sanskrit, adhyāsa). One reality gets superimposed upon another reality: memory gets superimposed upon perception.
The example Shankara gave was a snake and a string. A woman sees a string, but thinks it’s a snake and stress hormones flood her body, her heart races, she runs away or screams. In other words, she’s playing old tapes in her mind, and then reacting to those tapes, rather than the present perception.
Modern science has located a physiological component to this, called the amygdala. When a person is stressed, the amygdala area of the brain becomes hyperactive. The amygdala is helpful for us when we are in danger, as it is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction. This response can save your life if you have to leap out of the way of an oncoming car, or can save your child’s life by giving you the adrenalin rush needed to snatch her out of the stream of traffic.
The problem comes when, due to exposure to trauma, a war veteran or a traumatized child constantly senses danger even when nothing bad is actually happening. They find it impossible to turn the hyperactive amygdala off.
Counseling may offer some relief, but the hyperactivity of the amygdala usually continues even after counseling, because counseling cannot restore balance to the amygdala.
That’s where the Transcendental Meditation technique comes in. Brain research shows that when a person practices TM, the activity surrounding the amygdala eases off and switches to the pre-frontal cortex. After meditating for some months, the amygdala only switches on when there is an actual danger. It’s calm the rest of the time.
Dr. Fred Travis, a neuroscientist and colleague of my husband’s at MUM has conducted many research studies on the TM technique. He says that to recover from PTSD, we need an experience that is the opposite of trauma—an experience that is holistic and not fragmented, an experience that is silent and not chaotic. When a person transcends, they move beyond thought and emotion. During meditation the fear signals from the brain get turned off.”
A study of Vietnam War veterans suffering from PTSD demonstrated that after three months of doing the Transcendental Meditation technique, symptoms such as alcohol usage, high startle response, emotional numbness and anxiety decreased as compared to a control group who received only psychotherapy. Research indicates that meditation has a positive effect on problems that often arise in PTSD sufferers, such as hypertension, depression, and substance abuse.
And TM works with children too. In urban schools in Detroit, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and all over the world, children are learning the Transcendental Meditation technique to release the anger and stress that comes from living in stressed environments.
As one child in a homeless shelter where TM is taught says, “Meditation feels good. Your body feels relaxed. It gets rid of negativity and anger. You forgive people. I have changed a lot.”
Back to Shankara’s explanation: meditation breaks the illusion. The memory no longer overpowers perception. So when a person goes to a movie, they enjoy the movie. When they go swimming, they enjoy swimming, because the active mind is now a quiet mind.
And children with PTSD can let go of the trauma that they have experienced, and become children again.
Linda Egenes is a health writer, blogger and author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.