MILWAUKEE — Rich Low dreamed of Iraq long after he returned home from the war.
The memories haunted him when he was awake, too. About six months after his deployment, he was driving at night when a sudden burst of lightning snapped him back to Baghdad and the bomb that exploded near him during a thunderstorm.
Low’s pulse raced as adrenaline surged through his body even though he was driving on a road far from any war zone.
He didn’t know post-traumatic stress was affecting him. Not until he took part in a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that taught Iraq and Afghanistan veterans yoga, meditation and breathing techniques to cope with PTSD.
Another group of veterans was recently at UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds learning meditation, deep breathing and Sudarshan Kriya Yoga techniques. Before the 10 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans started the weeklong course, they underwent MRIs, which were followed by another brain scan after the class is done.
The aim is to see if meditation, yoga and deep breathing can help veterans with PTSD.
The pilot study in fall 2010, which Low participated in, showed such positive results that researchers scheduled a longer, more in-depth study for this week in Madison. Meditation and yoga are already offered at veterans hospitals, but few studies have researched their effectiveness.
Low, an officer in charge of an Army infantry platoon, said meditation and deep breathing helped him recover from the stress of combat.
“I didn’t notice a change right away (after the study) but my dad did,” said Low, 31, of Madison, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and ’06. “My dad and I were riding in a car when he said I seemed like myself from three, four years before and that’s when it struck me that maybe Iraq affected me more than I knew.”
PTSD is a growing problem as veterans from two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return home to face emotional demons. An estimated 20 percent of the 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress. And suicide rates among male post 9-11 veterans are much higher than the rest of the U.S. population.
Common symptoms of PTSD are hyper-vigilance, which makes veterans jumpy at the slightest sound; intrusive thoughts such as flashbacks and nightmares; and emotional numbness, including the inability to feel love.
Treating PTSD often involves medication and psychotherapy to force patients to grapple with their trauma. But yoga and meditation could be a gentler, less invasive way to treat the effects of combat stress, said Jack Nitschke, one of the lead investigators of the study.
“No one thinks yoga is a panacea,” said Nitschke, a neuroscientist and UW associate professor of psychiatry and psychology.