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Mindfulness for Veterans: Techniques and Benefits

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Last Updated - 06/19/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Mindfulness is a mental practice that involves being fully present in the moment with a nonjudgmental attitude.
  • The core principles of mindfulness include non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go.
  • Mindfulness has roots in ancient traditions and has been integrated into Western medicine by figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn.
  • Scientific research supports the benefits of mindfulness on brain structure and function, improving mental health and stress resilience.
  • Veterans can benefit from mindfulness practices in managing PTSD, anxiety, and adapting to civilian life.
  • Mindfulness techniques tailored for veterans include mindful breathing, loving kindness meditation, and body scans.
  • Integrating mindfulness with physical exercise can amplify physical and mental health benefits.
  • The VA offers resources such as the Mindfulness Coach app and phone-based classes to support veterans’ mindfulness practice.
  • Mindfulness can be a complementary therapy for PTSD, offering a non-trauma-focused treatment option.
  • Case studies and personal experiences highlight the positive impact of mindfulness on veterans’ well-being.


What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice rooted in ancient traditions, now widely recognized for its benefits in mental health and well-being. It involves a heightened state of awareness and attention to the present moment, coupled with an attitude of non-judgment and acceptance. At its core, mindfulness is about being fully engaged with the here and now, without distraction or judgment. This means observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise, but not getting caught up in them.

What are the Core Principles of Mindfulness?

Several key principles underpin the practice of mindfulness. These include non-judgment, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Each of these principles serves to cultivate a mindful approach to life, where one can step back and observe the flow of experiences without being overwhelmed by them. For example, adopting a beginner’s mind encourages an attitude of openness and eagerness to learn, devoid of preconceptions.

Mindfulness can be practiced through various exercises, such as focused breathing, meditation, and body scanning. These practices are designed to train the mind to remain present and fully engage with the current experience. By doing so, mindfulness has been shown to improve cognitive function, emotional regulation, and stress resilience. The American Psychological Association highlights mindfulness as an effective tool in therapy, helping individuals break free from destructive habits and respond to life’s challenges with greater calm and clarity.

The History of Mindfulness: Ancient Traditions to Modern Practice

The practice of mindfulness, with its roots deeply embedded in ancient traditions, has undergone significant evolution over millennia. Its journey from the East to the West is marked by pivotal figures and moments, particularly the contributions of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is credited with integrating mindfulness into Western medicine through the development of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in the late 1970s. This program signaled a shift in the medical community’s approach to stress, chronic pain, and a variety of psychological conditions.

Mindfulness Roots in Buddhist meditation

The term ‘mindfulness’ itself was translated from the Pali word ‘sati’ by Thomas William Rhys Davids in 1881, which is often interpreted as ‘to remember.’ However, it is the nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness aspect of mindfulness that is emphasized in contemporary practice. Rooted in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness was taught by Gautama Buddha around 2,500 years ago and has since been a cornerstone of Buddhist traditions. Over time, mindfulness has transcended its religious origins to become a secular practice embraced by various health disciplines for its therapeutic benefits.

Research and anecdotal evidence have reinforced the value of mindfulness in promoting mental well-being and managing stress-related ailments. As mindfulness continues to gain popularity, it is increasingly adapted for diverse populations, including veterans, to address specific challenges such as PTSD and anxiety.

The Key Principles of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a transformative practice rooted in a set of core principles that foster a deeper connection with one’s thoughts and feelings. These principles are designed to cultivate a state of awareness and acceptance of the present moment. The seven key principles of mindfulness, often referred to as attitudes, include:

  • Non-judging: This principle involves observing thoughts and feelings without criticism or analysis, allowing experiences to exist without labeling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  • Patience: Patience is a recognition of the natural unfolding of events and experiences, allowing them to occur in their own time.
  • Beginner’s Mind: Approaching experiences with a sense of curiosity and openness, as if encountering them for the first time.
  • Trust: Developing confidence in one’s intuition and feelings as part of the mindfulness journey.
  • Non-striving: Engaging in mindfulness practice without a goal or end-point, focusing instead on the process and present experience.
  • Acceptance: Acknowledging the reality of the present moment and accepting it without trying to change it.
  • Letting Go: Releasing attachment to thoughts, feelings, and outcomes, allowing them to pass without holding on.

These principles are interdependent, each supporting and enriching the others. By embracing these attitudes, individuals can develop a more mindful approach to life, leading to enhanced well-being and inner peace. Notably, mindfulness has been shown to reduce impulsivity and emotional reactivity, which can be particularly beneficial for veterans adapting to civilian life.

Understanding the Scientific Mechanisms of Mindfulness

The efficacy of mindfulness is increasingly supported by scientific research, which elucidates how it affects both the brain and body. Mindfulness practices, including meditation, have been shown to influence brain structure and function, leading to a range of mental health benefits as supported by neuroscience and wellness studies.

There is a growing body of work that includes seminal research by figures such as Herbert Benson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the use of mindfulness in stress reduction and coping strategies. As mindfulness continues to gain traction in wellness cultures, its scientific underpinnings provide a compelling case for its effectiveness in enhancing mental health and coping with life’s challenges.

Neurological Impact of Mindfulness on Veterans’ Brains

Recent research has illuminated the profound impact mindfulness practices have on the brain’s structure and function, particularly in the context of veterans’ mental health. A few major areas of impact that are especially important to veterans follow:

  • Neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, plays a central role in this process. Pioneering neuroscientist Richie Davidson has highlighted the potential for mindfulness to underscore human neuroplasticity, which could be especially beneficial for veterans adapting to post-service life.
  • Memory, attention, and emotional regulation: Studies, including those published in respected journals such as Nature and The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, have documented changes in brain regions associated with memory, attention, and emotional regulation following mindfulness practices. These areas are critical for veterans, who may struggle with issues such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
  • Reduced fear: For instance, neuroscience research indicates that mindfulness can reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain’s ‘fear center,’ which is heavily involved in processing stress and emotional responses. Concurrently, it enhances the connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which helps in regulating emotional responses and stress recovery.
  • Lowered stress, relieved pain, and improved thinking: Furthermore, Harvard Health has reported research suggesting mindfulness can counter stress, relieve chronic pain, and improve mood, thinking, and memory. The psychological benefits of mindfulness, supported by neuroscientific evidence, point to its value in enhancing cognitive functions and reducing age-related brain degeneration, which could be instrumental in supporting veterans’ mental resilience and overall well-being.

While some studies have suggested measurable changes in brain structure, it’s crucial to note that the field is still evolving, and ongoing research continues to refine our understanding of how mindfulness specifically benefits veterans’ neurological health.

Physical Health Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

Recent research underscores the potential of mindfulness practice to enhance physical health, particularly when combined with exercise:

  • Studies, such as those conducted by the University of Bath and mentioned in ScienceDaily, suggest that combining mindfulness with physical exercise can amplify psychological benefits, improving overall mental well-being, fitness, stress resilience and happiness. This integrative approach could be particularly beneficial for individuals seeking to start a new wellness routine. 
  • Moreover, mindfulness-based interventions have been associated with structural brain changes, as reported in a meta-analysis published in Scientific Reports, indicating that the practice can lead to long-term improvements in brain health.

Mindfulness, the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of complete awareness of one’s thoughts, physical sensations, and environment, has been linked to a host of physical health benefits:

  • Regular mindfulness practice has been associated with increased levels of physical activity, encouraging healthier lifestyle choices.
  • It can lead to decreased stress and anxiety, which are known to have adverse effects on physical health.
  • Mindfulness can also improve focus and concentration, contributing to better performance in physical activities.
  • It has been found to promote improved sleep quality, which is essential for physical recovery and overall health.
  • By fostering a deeper connection with one’s body, mindfulness can make exercise more engaging and help individuals recognize the benefits of physical activity, leading to long-term exercise adherence.

Furthermore, the practice of mindfulness can build new neural pathways in the brain, enhancing attention skills and potentially affecting areas like the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for decision-making and self-regulation. This neuroplasticity can have far-reaching implications for physical health, including better stress management and reduced risk of stress-related illnesses. As the field of mindfulness research continues to evolve, its integration with exercise emerges as a promising approach for improving physical well-being.

For more in-depth information, reference can be made to studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as PMC.

Mindfulness Techniques Tailored for Veterans

Mindfulness techniques offer a range of benefits for veterans, aiding in their mental and physical well-being. These practices are designed to bring attention to the present moment, fostering a sense of peace and clarity. The Veterans Health Library and the Whole Health Library by Veterans Affairs provide valuable resources for veterans interested in mindfulness.

  • Mindful Breathing: This fundamental technique involves focusing on the breath to anchor the mind in the present. It can be a powerful tool for managing stress and anxiety.
  • Loving Kindness Meditation: This practice encourages an attitude of compassion and kindness towards oneself and others, which can be particularly healing for veterans coping with emotional challenges.
  • Mindful Body Scan: A body scan meditation guides individuals through each part of the body, encouraging awareness of physical sensations and promoting relaxation.
  • Guided Meditation: Veterans can access guided meditations through resources like the Mindfulness Coach app, which offers a structured approach to mindfulness training.
  • Phone-based Mindfulness Classes: The War Related Illness and Injury Study Center offers monthly mindfulness meditation classes by phone, making it easily accessible for veterans.

These techniques can be practiced individually or with the support of VA programs that offer mindfulness training for veterans. By integrating mindfulness into their daily lives, veterans can work towards improved mental health and resilience.

Mindful Breathing Techniques for Veterans

Mindful breathing is a foundational practice in mindfulness that can offer significant benefits to veterans, particularly those dealing with stress, anxiety, and PTSD. This technique involves focusing on the breath and using it as an anchor to the present moment, thereby enhancing awareness and promoting relaxation. Veterans Affairs recognizes yoga and mindful breathing as part of its Whole Health System, indicating its clinical importance.

Practicing mindful breathing can be done in any comfortable position with attention to posture. The process encourages veterans to breathe deeply and consciously, which can lead to a calming effect on the nervous system. Research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that mindfulness training, including mindful breathing, can reduce opioid use and craving among military personnel dealing with chronic pain.

Mindful Breathing Benefits for Veterans

Moreover, mindful breathing serves as a practical tool for veterans to manage acute stress responses and improve overall well-being. A study highlighted by Mindful.org found that veterans who practiced mindfulness experienced significant reductions in disorder symptoms. Mindful breathing can be easily integrated into daily life and can be supported through VA resources, such as mobile apps and educational handouts, to help veterans cultivate resilience and cope with the challenges of post-military life.

Veterans’ Resources to Help with Mindful Meditation

Mindfulness meditation offers a peaceful refuge from the chaos of everyday life, particularly for veterans coping with the complexities of stress and anxiety. Several resources are available to veterans to help them with mindfulness techniques:

  • The VA Portland Mindfulness Institute supports veterans through an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, highlighting the accessibility and evidence-based nature of these practices.
  • Veterans can also engage in mindfulness through phone-based classes provided by the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center, which requires no registration and introduces mindfulness topics followed by guided meditations. 
  • The Mindfulness Coach app from the VA App Store presents a digital avenue to explore mindfulness, aiding veterans in achieving emotional balance and managing mental health challenges.
  • For those new to mindfulness, starting with guided meditations, such as loving kindness meditation or mindful body scans, can be particularly beneficial. These can be found through the Veterans Health Library or VA mobile apps. 

The practice of mindfulness encourages veterans to live in the present moment, providing a tool to cope with stress and enhance overall well-being.

Enhancing Veteran Well-being Through Mindfulness

Veterans can experience substantial benefits from incorporating mindfulness practices into their lives. Mindfulness, which involves purposefully paying attention to the present moment without judgment, has been shown to be particularly effective in reducing stress and improving mental health among veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges mindfulness as a tool for veterans to center themselves and relax the mind, which can be especially beneficial for those dealing with the complexities of post-service life. Studies have indicated that mindfulness can also help veterans manage symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, which are often higher in this population compared to civilians. By practicing mindfulness, veterans may find a valuable resource in their journey towards reintegration and healing.

Mindfulness as a Therapeutic Approach for Veterans with PTSD

Veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may find relief through mindfulness practices. Mindfulness, which involves intentional, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment, has shown promise in reducing PTSD symptoms such as emotional numbing, avoidance behaviors, and hyperarousal. Studies indicate that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can significantly impact these symptoms, fostering relaxation and an improved capacity to manage stress, anxiety, and anger.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Therapy

Research from the JAMA Network and other sources has documented the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy for veterans. MBSR participants have reported better handling past traumas, staying present, and accepting adversity. Additionally, veterans learned to use breathing techniques to manage stress reactions, which are often associated with hyperarousal—a core symptom cluster of PTSD. This approach can potentially enhance overall quality of life by increasing stress tolerance and reducing lifestyle limitations imposed by PTSD.

While mindfulness is not a cure-all and should not replace traditional treatments, it can be a valuable complementary therapy. It offers a non-trauma-focused alternative that may be preferable for veterans not ready to engage in trauma-focused treatments. The clinical significance of improvements in PTSD symptoms through MBSR is comparable to that of established trauma-focused interventions like prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy, making it a viable option for veterans seeking to alleviate the burden of PTSD.

Enhancing Veteran Mental Health Through Mindfulness

Veterans often face a unique set of other mental health challenges as well, including higher rates of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness has been shown to be a valuable tool in managing these issues. A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates that mindfulness can help veterans by improving attention regulation, cultivating mental well-being, and enhancing specific capacities such as concentration and compassion.

Furthermore, mindfulness meditation has been specifically highlighted for its effectiveness in coping with stress. It is associated with changes in the brain that help manage negative thoughts and sensations related to PTSD, as shown in a 2016 study. Veterans can access mindfulness and relaxation resources through the Veterans Health Library, which provides guided practices like mindful breathing and body scans, contributing to a holistic approach to mental health care.

Impact of Mindfulness on Veterans: Case Studies

Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have become increasingly recognized for their potential to positively impact the mental health and well-being of veterans. Several case studies illustrate these findings:

  • A study published in SAGE Open Medicine surveyed 185 military veterans, finding that 30% practiced mindfulness in the past year, primarily to manage stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep issues, and depression. Despite challenges with treatment engagement in outpatient VA settings, mindfulness was one of the top three most frequently used complementary and integrative health (CIH) approaches among veterans.
  • Scientific literature corroborates the benefits of MBIs for veterans. For instance, a study in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is well tolerated by trauma survivors and veterans with PTSD, even though treatment dropout rates were notable. Furthermore, research indicates that MBIs can lead to reductions in PTSD symptoms, depression, and general psychological distress, while improving quality of life and mindfulness itself.
  • Another study, featured in Psychiatric Quarterly, explored psychological resilience among U.S. military veterans, emphasizing the role of mindfulness in fostering resilience post-trauma. The 2019–2020 National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study indicated that most individuals exhibit resilience following traumatic events, with minimal symptoms of PTSD, depression, or anxiety disorders.
  • Further research, such as the randomized clinical trial on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, has examined the efficacy of mindfulness for veterans on long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain, suggesting potential benefits.
  • A pilot study on Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) showed that self-compassion practices are associated with improvements in well-being among veterans, who often face more medical conditions and severe pain compared to non-veterans.

In summary, case studies and research highlight the positive effects of mindfulness practices on veterans, addressing mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and enhancing overall psychological well-being.

Mindfulness Impact on Veterans: Real-Life Stories

Veterans who have embraced mindfulness practices often report profound changes in their lives. 

  • Marine Corps Veteran Peter Lisowski, a graduate of a mindfulness program, describes the practice as an opportunity to ‘center’ himself, allowing his brain to relax by focusing on one thing at a time. This sense of present-moment awareness is echoed by Dr. Christiane Wolf, MD, Ph.D., who emphasizes the importance of being in the ‘now’ rather than dwelling on past or future thoughts.
  • One Vietnam combat veteran shares that mindfulness has significantly improved his life, providing a sense of safety and security that was previously elusive. The Mindful Veteran Project also highlights the broad benefits mindfulness offers to the military-connected population, with research backing its positive impact on challenges commonly faced by veterans.

Personal experiences and case studies, such as those found in the phenomenological study on veterans who completed a 4-month mindfulness program, provide valuable insights into the transformative power of these practices. These stories serve as powerful testaments to the potential of mindfulness in fostering resilience, managing stress, and enhancing overall well-being among veterans.

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