Any kind of traumatic event takes its toll on our hearts, minds and spirits. It’s normal to feel anxiety, on edge, sadness, and to have more than one sleepless night during a difficult or painful event or time in our lives. It may even be difficult to go about our normal daily routine, and we might find it hard to be with other people during or after a traumatic event. This is normal and, most people find that they naturally, over time, start to feel better.
But if a few months have passed, and you find you’re still struggling with issues like sleeplessness, reoccurring flashbacks or nightmares, severe anxiety or uncontrollable thoughts about the event, you may be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What exactly is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD is a devastating anxiety condition that can affect all aspects of one’s life. The condition develops as the result of experiencing a traumatic, terrifying or life-threatening event. The type of event can range from a person’s experience in a war, conflict, assault, abuse (physical or emotional), a life threatening illnesses, or an event where some one feels extreme fear or helplessness either through personal experience or as a witness.
According to the NIH, we are all born with a fundamental ’fight-or-flight’ response to endangering events which is meant to protect us from harm. To be diagnosed with PTSD though, an adult must be experiencing all of the following symptoms for at least 1 month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom: Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating, bad dreams, frightening thoughts.
- At least one avoidance symptom: Avoiding thoughts, feelings, places, events, or objects related to the traumatic event.
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms: Being easily startled, feeling tense or “on edge”, having difficulty sleeping, or having angry outbursts.
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms: Trouble remembering important aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, or a loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
When looking at this list of requirements, you’re probably thinking, “I have felt many – if not all – of these things on the list during a time of crisis, trauma or loss. Yes. These are all normal reactions to trauma and loss. PTSD is diagnosed when these feelings continue to affect a person’s life and well-being long after the crisis has passed.
For many people – 7-8% of the U.S. population – Post-traumatic Stress Disorder can be an extremely hopeless and potentially fatal condition, particularly for veterans. Nowhere is the connection between PTSD and suicide felt more strongly than in the veteran community. In fact, combat veterans who experienced a severe trauma or life-threatening situation in combat are at the highest relative suicide risk compared to people exposed to other types of trauma. According to the VA’s comprehensive research, “in 2014, U.S. veterans were 22% more likely to die by suicide compared to their adult civilian peers, adjusting for age and sex.”
What is the current treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Currently, the Veteran’s Administration National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD) recommends two main treatment avenues for PTSD: psychotherapy and selective medications (i.e., anti-depressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
The main suggested trauma-focused psychotherapy treatments are:
Prolonged exposure (PE): Guided in the therapeutic setting, this involves talking about the trauma with a provider and includes encouragement to start engaging in the activities of your life that have been avoided since the trauma.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): Guided in the therapeutic setting, you are taught to reframe negative thoughts about the trauma through talk and writing assignments.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Guided in the therapeutic setting, you are supported in calling the trauma to mind while paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound (like a finger waving side to side, a light, or a tone).
The suggested medication are antidepressants (SSRIs and SNRIs): Sertraline (Zoloft), Paroxetine (Paxil), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Venlafaxine (Effexor).
But, research from the VA shows that these treatments have less than 50% success rate.
With these two options carrying less than a 50% success rate, combined with an escalating rate of suicides due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, it’s not surprising that the new discoveries involving our endocannabinoid system has inspired researchers and people suffering from PTSDs to look into cannabis as a treatment option.
Is cannabis an effective treatment for PTSD?
Cannabis (medical marijuana) is currently listed with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the Federal Government as schedule 1 drug, making it nearly impossible for researchers in the U.S. to investigate the potential medical properties of cannabis and cannabinoid therapies.
For example, MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) spent the better part of 30 years attempting to persuade the DEA to allow researchers the ability to grow their own medical marijuana for research purposes. This is why other countries are currently leading the research in cannabinoid and medical marijuana therapies. Although in 2016, the DEA announced their intention to grant licenses to marijuana growers for research, paving the way for many scientists to being researching cannabinoid therapy for a multitude of diseases and conditions.
Researchers from the University of New Mexico reported in August, 2018, “medical cannabis provides immediate symptom relief across dozens of health symptoms with relatively minimal negative side effects”.
And researchers from Haifa, Israel, published in the Journal of Neuroscience have discovered that the amygdala (the fear-processing center of the brain) contains the cannabinoid receptors CB1, and presents a new potential avenue for treatment in PTSD symptoms, concluding that, “Cannabinoids could represent a therapeutic target for the treatment of diseases associated with the inappropriate retention of aversive memories, such as posttraumatic stress disorder”. They stress, “dose together with the context in which cannabinoids are administered should be taken into consideration.”
Researchers from Canada have reported that cannabis, in the form of Nabilone a synthetic version of THC, could remove fear responses to stressors such as nightmares, poor sleep, night sweats, and flashbacks. They reported, “In addition to potentially reducing PTSD symptoms, cannabis also mitigates the propensity for inflammation and may be useful in psychological conditions that involve elevated inflammatory processes within the brain.” They also stress given the infancy of medical marijuana research that, “given the differential effects of THC and CBD in relation to affective behaviors and cognitive functioning, it is necessary to determine the ratio of the different cannabis components (e.g., THC in relation to CBD) that are most effective at promoting therapeutic effects while minimizing adverse effects.”
Science is in the beginning phases of understanding the underlying factors contributing to the condition of PTSD, and the potential for cannabis as an effective treatment in the healing of PTSD, and particularly discovering clear dosing guidelines and cannabinoid ratios that produce the most healing effects.
So far, the future looks promising.
PTSD patients are advised to consult with a medical professional before treating their symptoms with cannabis.