I'm married to a full-time soldier, so few things get my attention like a headline about post-traumatic stress disorder. I've been riveted by the recent surge in PTSD research spurred not just by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also by terrorism and natural disasters. Government institutions, military hospitals, and universities have all stepped up efforts to understand this anxiety disorder, teasing out what makes some people vulnerable and others resilient, as well as how the brain can heal. What they're discovering about PTSD is yielding important insights into how the rest of us can manage the moderate stress we deal with every day.
needs support—we call it 'mental armor'—just as much as the body does," says Amishi Jha, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies stress-fighting techniques such as mindfulness to help military personnel. "Research shows it's possible to cushion yourself against stress, and the tactics we're using with soldiers also apply to real folks and more common types of anxiety." Key to the recent breakthroughs is a much clearer picture of how destructive stress can be. Persistent anxiety can kill neurons in brain structures concerned with memory and decisionmaking, and such damage is even visible on brain scans.
Although women are less likely to experience traumatic events than men are (about half of women in the United States will encounter a trauma in their lifetime, most commonly sexual assault, followed by car crash), we're twice as likely to develop PTSD when we do, says the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Women are also more vulnerable to everyday stress—mothers, for example, are 5 times as likely as fathers to rate their stress at the highest level, says the American Psychological Association.
Fortunately, experts are learning that all along the continuum—from severe anxiety disorders to garden-variety worry—coping and even prevention tactics are highly effective. Here's what new PTSD science can teach all of us about outsmarting stress. If these solutions work for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can certainly help the rest of us on the home front.
For Stress Survivors:
Build Mental Armor with Meditation
Mindfulness meditation works wonders to boost stress resilience, say experts from the University of Pennsylvania who are using the practice with military personnel. "We teach them to focus on the present moment instead of catastrophizing about the future," says Jha. After 8 weeks of meditation training, Marines became less reactive to stressors—plus they were more alert and exhibited better memory.