Prisoners have one of the highest rates of lifetime trauma of any segment of society, with recent surveys showing that 85% have been a victim of a crime-related event, such as robbery or home invasion, or physical or sexual abuse.
Trauma is associated with higher rates of recidivism (returning to prison) and mental and physical health conditions, including cardiovascular disease.
To try to find a remedy for the high rates of trauma among prisoners, an innovative study with Transcendental Meditation was implemented in a large group of Oregon male inmates. The results, published in The Permanente Journal online, found that after four months of practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, inmates at two Oregon prisons had significantly reduced trauma symptoms, including anxiety, depression, dissociation, and sleep disturbance, and a significant decrease in perceived stress compared to non-meditating controls. Within the TM group, a 47% reduction in total trauma symptoms was observed over the course of the four-month study.
Further post-hoc analysis showed an even higher magnitude of effect due to TM practice in those with the highest level of trauma symptoms. A 56% reduction was found within the TM group for those above the mean in baseline trauma scores.
"To date this is the largest randomized controlled trial with the Transcendental Meditation program on trauma symptoms," said Dr. Nidich, lead author of the study and director of Maharishi University of Management Center for Social and Emotional Health. "These findings, along with previous published research on veterans, active military personnel, international refugees, and other at-risk populations provide support for the value of the Transcendental Meditation program as an alternative treatment for posttraumatic stress."
Study of moderate- to high-risk inmates
The study used a randomized controlled design and was conducted at the Oregon State Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary, located in Salem, Oregon. A total of 181 moderate- to high-risk inmates were assigned to either the Transcendental Meditation group or a non-meditating control group, with all subjects continuing with their standard of care.
The participants were assessed using two standardized instruments: the Trauma Symptoms Checklist and the Perceived Stress Scale. After four months of practicing Transcendental Meditation, the inmates in the TM treatment group exhibited significant reductions in total trauma symptoms, anxiety, depression, dissociation and sleep disturbance subscales, and perceived stress.
Compliance with TM practice was high. Of those randomized to learn the TM program, 88% completed the initial seven-step TM course (total of five sessions) and over 80% were regular with their daily TM practice over the course of the four-month study.
"I have watched inmates learn Transcendental Meditation and become more human after a long and isolating period of becoming less human," said study co-author Dr. Tom O'Conner, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Western Oregon University. "TM helps to awaken, deepen, and solidify the kind of transformational process that we so badly need in our overburdened and costly correctional system."
Consistent with previous research on prisoners
Transcendental Meditation has been implemented in other prison settings for the purpose of studying other mental health and behavioral factors. At La Tuna federal penitentiary near El Paso, Texas, findings suggested that Transcendental Meditation reduces obsessive-compulsive behavior, decreases social introversion, and increases positive social relations. A study at Folsom State Prison in California found a reduction in anxiety and neuroticism, as well as improved sleep.
Research in several prisons, including Folsom State Prison and San Quentin State Prison in California, and Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts, found reduced rates of recidivism, ranging from 33% to 47%.
How it works
"Previous published studies have shown that Transcendental Meditation decreases hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, responsible for such processes as the 'fight or flight response.' These kinds of changes from an overly aroused style of functioning to a more healthy, stable condition of physiological functioning may help explain how TM practice reduces trauma symptoms," said Dr. Nidich. "Brain imaging studies and other psychophysiological research have shown that TM meditators have less reactivity to stressful stimuli, further indicating a more stable and balanced style of functioning."
One of the participants in the study expressed his experiences with Transcendental Meditation in the following way: "As I entered the 24th year behind bars I had come to grips with most of the demons of the past but still felt fragmented. Recently I was given the chance to learn TM.... As the weeks passed that sense of fragmentation started to flow into something deeper and new. A quiet that feels so natural and restful that I feel like I've finally come home. To a place where things make sense and I'm just happy. The pains of my life haven't gone away.... just feels like I've grown beyond them."
The study was funded by the David Lynch Foundation, New York.
Sanford Nidich, EdD; Tom O'Connor, PhD; Thomas Rutledge, PhD; Jeff Duncan; Blaze Compton, MA; Angela Seng; Randi Nidich, EdD. Reduced trauma symptoms and perceived stress in male prison inmates through the Transcendental Meditation program: A randomized controlled trial. Perm J 2016 Fall;20(4):16-007. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7812/TPP/16-007.
About the Transcendental Meditation Technique
Transcendental Meditation® (TM®) is a simple, natural technique practiced 20 minutes twice each day while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. The TM technique is easy to learn and enjoyable to practice, and is not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle. Unlike other forms of meditation, TM practice involves no concentration, no control of the mind, no contemplation, no monitoring of thoughts. It automatically and effortlessly allows the active thinking mind to settle down to a state of deep inner calm. For more information visit http://www.tm.org.
The Permanente Journal