When brave men and women return from war, their battle is just beginning. Emma Seppala, research scientist at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, has been studying the impact of meditation on veterans suffering from trauma for the past two years.
In her study, Seppala observed two sets of veterans; one group took a breathing-based meditation workshop, and the other did not.
“Those veterans with [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] who went through it had improved sleep, improved post-traumatic stress disorder, improved anxiety, [and] improved spatial working memory,” Seppala said.
Or, in less scientific terms, the course had the potential to improve the quality of life for veterans.
One participant, Luis Moroney, joined the Army in 2000 before the devastation of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Moroney was stationed in Baghdad for 15 months and was discharged from the military in 2005.
Travis Leanna, another participant, was only a freshman in high school when 9/11 occurred.
“For some reason, I just knew I was going to go into the military,” he said.
Leanna joined the Marine Corps in 2005 and served five months in Fallujah, Iraq. He is still in the Marine Corps Reserves.
Leanna comedically recalls his initial idea of meditation by imitating a hippy-like person saying, “Now clear your mind,” in a smooth, pretentious tone. He laughed and said in his own combative, yet playful manner, “What does that mean”?
Throughout the seven-day course, Seppala introduced the veterans to practices targeted at decreasing stress and obtaining mental clarity. Oftentimes, people overlook how interconnected the body and mind are. Yoga-based practices, such as breathing and meditation, can help remedy this common problem.
Before the course, Moroney had exhausted himself experimenting with different methods to attempt to cope with his PTSD. He found therapy was too focused on the past, and anti-depressants gave him a “flatline personality.”
However, with meditation, Moroney said, “If you’re really depressed it’ll bring you up, and if you’re really anxious it’ll bring you down. It brings you right to where you need to be.”
Initially, Leanna was concerned about being able to get to a state of meditation; however, after learning to control his breathing, it became quite simple for him.
“When you go through the breathing steps,” Leanna said, “it clears your mind for you and puts everything back in order.”
After the course, their lives became more manageable. Moroney even expressed his excitement at achieving his first 4.0 GPA, and attributed his success to the concentration he achieved through the breathing practices.
In addition to helping them find peace of mind through meditation, Seppala taught the veterans that “happiness is on the inside.”
“When you’re more connected to your own center,” Seppala said, “you say, act and choose to do things that are more life-enhancing choices.”
She went on to explain that having inner happiness and a connection to yourself often allows people to feel more connected to those around them and the world in which they live, further spreading the happiness they are feeling.
“I would say before this, I had two or three good connections,” Leanna said, “like my parents and one good friend. Now I feel like almost everyone I run into, especially from the course, I feel connected to. It gave me a new perspective on life.”
Moroney admitted his lack of connectedness could be attributed to the idea that “the less you know someone, the less they can hurt you and you can hurt them.”
However, the course helped him break down barriers and interact with his family and the rest of the world again.
“I never felt emotions,” Leanna said. “I never knew what that was like. Then I took the course and it just opened me up. I remember actually calling Emma. I was watching a movie a few months after the course and I cried. [laughs] I thought, ‘This is so weird!'”
Of course, these practices cannot completely decimate the effects of trauma, but they can help significantly. And though these practices can be highly beneficial for veterans, they can also be useful for just about anyone.
“Most people have something going on, and it’ll help that,” Moroney said. “But also it will just help you realize what is important and who you really are.”
The men praised Seppala for her effervescent, smiley and positively contagious demeanor, linking many of their successes since the course back to her and what she taught them.
“She is my role model,” Leanna said. “If I could reach out to one hundredth of the people she has reached out to, I’d be good. What she did for me, she does for so many other people.”
Moroney jumped in to say, “Emma is a saint. She does a lot for a lot of people. She preaches what she actually does, which is service.”
In addition to her research on veterans, Seppala leads a student-run organization called YES+. This acronym stands for “Yoga, Empowerment, Service, Plus (so much more).”
“YES+ has a big emphasis on taking care of yourself and then going to take care of society and connecting and doing service,” Seppala said.
She teaches the same practices to students as she does to veterans. Many would probably agree that stress is a common issue for students on campus.
“When there’s less stress in your mind,” Seppala said, “your body is healthier because stress decreases immune function and it can have impacts on concentration and sleep.”
If students are able to reduce their stress, find inner peace and learn to focus, they may be able to make a long-lasting positive impact on the world.
To obtain more information about YES+, students can contact [email protected]. In addition, Yoga Eight and Tibia Massage School offer special deals to veterans. Owner of Yoga Eight, David Turner, is a veteran himself and is offering six months of free yoga classes to recently discharged veterans. Tibia Massage School is holding a “Day of Peace for Veterans” on Nov. 11 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., when it will offer free one-hour massages and intuitive sessions to veterans.
If you or someone you know is a veteran suffering from trauma, feel free to contact Seppala personally at [email protected] to learn about more options.