Meditation Heps Marines Deal With Stress

Meditation Heps Marines Deal With Stress

A group of US Marines sit cross-legged on the grass at Quantico barracks in Virginia. M16 rifles are slung across their backs. Dog tags are blowing lazily in the breeze. It’s been a long hard day of counter-insurgency training and advanced weapons’ drills.

Now it’s time for a spot of meditation in the evening sunshine.

Each Marine closes his eyes and breathes gently in and out. One by one they start to relax. Their broad shoulders and powerful chests soon move in fluid harmony with their breath. Knotted muscles unfurl. Gritted teeth loosen. Their grimy faces are soon the picture of peaceful tranquility.

Although it makes for an incongruous sight, the US Marines are embracing an ancient form of meditation known as ‘mindfulness’ - and they report remarkable results.

After eight weeks of meditating for just 15 minutes a day, the soldiers are far better at dealing with anxiety, stress, depression and insomnia. It helps them stay calm and focused in the thick of battle, while improving overall mental and physical fitness.

‘After the course, I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,’ says Major Jeff Davis, a 40-year-old infantry officer. ‘I had no problem concentrating when I was upset. I can’t think of any aspect of my life that it hasn’t helped me with.’

It isn’t just the US Marines who are using mindfulness meditation. Ruby Wax is an aficionado. Hollywood stars such as Goldie Hawn have embraced it. And academics at Oxford and Cambridge teach it to their students to help them cope with exam stress.

Mindfulness has now become one of the hottest topics in mental health. One study, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, has shown that it increases happiness and well-being, while a major study in Psychological Science revealed such changes help regular meditators live longer, healthier lives. Other research has shown that it improves memory, creativity, and reaction times. It also boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure.

Professor Mark Williams, a clinical psychologist at Oxford University and co-author of the bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, says: ‘Mindfulness is about being compassionate with yourself.'

‘Mindfulness teaches you to treat feelings of unhappiness and stress as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to watch them as they drift past. It allows you to catch negative thoughts before they tip you into a downward spiral.’

‘Just 10-20 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation can have a significant benefit on overall mental health and wellbeing.’

The benefits of mindfulness appear after just a few sessions of meditation but also build up over time. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in America have found that if people continue to meditate over several years, the physical structure of the brain is altered for the better. The brain’s emotional thermostat is reset and they are taken off a ‘hair-trigger’.

Given time, this means that you’re more likely to feel happy rather than sad, increasingly likely to live with ease rather than be angry or aggressive, and be energised rather than tired and listless. These are the benefits reported by the US Marines who have undergone mindfulness training.

Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the Marines, was initially highly sceptical but ‘did a 180’ once he was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province.

‘In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. ‘It would help me recognize the symptoms of stress in my body before they got out of control. It helped me cope.’