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Things that make you go ‘om’: Meditation for healthy living

A soldier with the 160th Signal Brigade meditates before duty at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.  (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Margaret Taylor) A soldier with the 160th Signal Brigade meditates before duty at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Margaret Taylor)

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Army Lt. Col. Steve Zappalla was working in his cubicle at the Pentagon on the day terrorists flew a hijacked plane into the building. The force of the impact lifted him out of his seat and slammed him onto the floor. He escaped with a concussion, but 22 of his workgroup colleagues were among 125 people in the building who died.

Zappalla, a combat arms officer, returned to the Pentagon only a few days after 9/11 to work out of a makeshift office. He tried to push the tragedy out of his mind, but “I had a lot of difficult emotions and didn’t know how to deal with them,” he said. “And my relationships with loved ones suffered.”

The father of six children retired in 2003. Still struggling, he started abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. He finally found help by taking friends’ advice to learn meditation.

“I’m less stressed, less anxious,” he said. “I’ve learned it’s OK for my mind to just be still.”

Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that’s showing promise as a modern health innovation, as researchers discover meditating leads to brain changes that can have long-term physical and mental health benefits.

“Research has really picked up over the past 15 years,” said Army Capt. Stephen Krauss, a research psychologist and assistant professor in the Military and Emergency Medicine Department for the Consortium for Human and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

“There are a lot of findings supporting meditation and mind-body medicine overall,” Krauss said.

Meditation has many traditions and techniques, including mindfulness, transcendental, and Zen. Basically, it’s an exercise to train the brain to be calm and present, a “here-and-now” orientation with a nonjudgmental sense of awareness.

Some meditators repeatedly intone “om,” a symbolic word of affirmation. Others mentally focus on a word or phrase, also known as a mantra, or simply on their own breaths.

Meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, or walking. When external noises, thoughts, and other distractions intrude, meditators should acknowledge them mentally, release them, and then return to the original focus.

According to Krauss, the National Institutes of Health sparked meditation research by including it in studies of alternative medicines. The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that during meditation, measurable biological changes occur in body functions that aren’t consciously controlled, such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion. These changes can help reduce stress and fatigue, lower blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system, among other findings.

“It takes the body about three minutes to switch from an active response to a more relaxed response, and that’s when you start seeing meditation’s benefits,” Krauss said, adding that people who are the most anxious about it usually have the most to gain.

“Someone who has a hard time sitting still can do a moving meditation,” he said, such as walking a labyrinth. Krauss is exploring using the indoor labyrinth at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Maryland, as a mental health intervention for chaplains or behavioral health providers to offer service members.

Krauss said the NIH and Veterans Affairs have taken the lead on scientific inquiry, while the Military Health System is focusing on the most effective ways to incorporate meditation at military treatment facilities and in specific health and wellness programs.

Zappalla wasn’t an immediate fan of meditation. “There were 300 people sitting in silence in this big, open room,” he recalled of his first attempt, a free weekly community gathering in Washington, D.C. “I looked around and said, ‘Nah,’ and then left. But I knew there was something there for me because it felt like home, in a way. So I kept going back.”

Eventually, Zappalla stayed for the entire 30-minute session and since then, meditation has been an integral part of his life. He regularly meditates on his own and also attends occasional weekend or week-long group retreats.

“I’m a total believer in meditation,” he said, “because I know what it’s done for me.”

The Human Performance Resource Center offers tips for mindfulness meditation and a five-minute, guided meditation session. 

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