Mindfulness-based meditation and the military are generally two things that one would not associate with one another.
But on Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Dr. Valerie Rice, chief of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate Army Medical Department Field Element in San Antonio, has participated in the Army Study Program since 2012. She has led a study entitled “Evaluating Next Generation Resiliency Training using the Virtual World of Second Life” for the last four years.
This study, along with her two related 2015 studies “Fortifying and Amplifying Resiliency Training” and “Expeditious Resiliency: Examining a 5-day Intensive Mindfulness Training,” which were recently funded, have allowed Rice and her team to work with active-duty military and veterans to examine the potential benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction for conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, depression, chronic pain, and anxiety among others.
The practice of “mindfulness, or being in the moment,” uses age-old meditation practices, offering practitioners an outlet for stress relief, Rice said.
Members of Rice’s research team are not only educated on the topics the study proposes to address, but each member must participate in both the online and in-person portions of the study as a prerequisite to joining the research team. This gives each member a unique understanding and perspective of the study and of the issues and methods that participants are hoping to address.
Additionally, it builds a trust and camaraderie between participants and the research team, which is important in a situation, where individuals may be revealing their deepest thoughts and fears.
Members of the Army Study Program Management Office, or ASPMO, team were invited to participate in an online mindfulness mediation session to gain an understanding of the experience. The virtual world, Second Life, is a 3-D computer environment, where avatars represent the individuals, who are participating.
In the virtual world participants are able to design the avatars to represent themselves, and even have the option to disguise the sound of their voice to the other participants. The virtual world includes not only the lodge, where participants meet, practice meditation, and have open discussions; but walking trails, horse stables, and other relaxing activities for participants.
“The virtual world reduces the anxiety that comes from going into a behavioral health center by offering anonymity,” Rice said. “There is still a stigma we have to confront that asking for help is a sign of weakness.”
A group of previous study participants came out to the Stillwell House on Fort Sam Houston to greet the team from ASPMO and to discuss their experience and outcomes pertaining to the study. It was made clear during the discussion that the group environment – whether in-person or through the virtual world – is greatly beneficial and builds a supportive network for those participating.
Feedback regarding the study has been very positive, as each participant not only shared the positive results of the mindfulness meditation itself, but also the benefits for a wide range of conditions experienced within the group including PTSD, chronic pain, and anger management. Participants also experienced some positive unexpected benefits.
Researchers and participants were surprised to experience not only the first-hand benefits of the mindfulness meditation, but the secondary benefits experienced by some including weight loss, improved sleep, lower blood pressure, reduced anger, and increased calmness. The ages, backgrounds, and ailments of participants varied greatly. The participants are active-duty military and military veterans, and range in age from 22-75 years.
Regardless of the demographics, the participants overwhelmingly agreed on the benefits of the group setting and of the mindfulness meditation to the admitted surprise of those who were formerly skeptical.
The participants, who met with the ASPMO team were anxious to share their experiences, which varied greatly. One young woman was experiencing severe chronic pain resulting from an intensely stressful work environment. After participating in the mindfulness-based stress reduction study, her pain has decreased so significantly that her medication has been cut to a fraction of what she required before learning the techniques and practices the study allowed her to acquire.
Another participant spoke about his hesitation to participate because as a retired Army officer, he was skeptical of the benefits of meditation or anything that resembled therapy. However, participation allowed him to deal with a variety of issues including PTSD and a recent cancer diagnosis, and he was very quick to sing the praises of both the virtual and in-person sessions, as well as the study team.
A third participant shared his intimate story of being the sole survivor of a military helicopter accident. The immense stress caused by the accident, as well as the issues that arose during the investigation, gave him cause to seek out assistance.
He received “a free banana that happened to have a flyer about the study attached.”
“I really just wanted a banana, but read the flyer and decided it was worth looking into further,” he recalled.
As a result of the positive experience he has had with the mindfulness meditation, he is sharing his story on larger stages in hopes of eliminating the stereotype associated with such practices and encouraging other military service members to participate.
The study, which has competed for and been awarded funding each of the last four years, has shown tremendous success in helping Soldiers and veterans. According to one article, evidence shows that participants are still employing the mediation methods they learned six months after participation has ceased.
If virtual training proves effective, “we can support Soldiers and veterans anywhere there is an Internet connection and a computer,” Rice said.
The results of the study are exciting, as this could be a breakthrough treatment for Soldiers suffering from a wide variety of ailments. As Rice and her team continue to successfully compete for funding and receive positive results from the research, the study will continue, potentially helping countless service members and veterans.