Research, Treatment

Using Cannabis to Help Treat the Symptoms of PTSD

September 30, 2020 04:03 pm ET

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that plagues many individuals who survived a terrifying and traumatic ordeal, either by witnessing it or by directly experiencing it. It’s common to automatically consider combat veterans when it comes to PTSD; however, PTSD can be present in any individual, whether or not they have been to war. When PTSD is left untreated, it can adversely affect the quality of life for the individual. Fortunately, cannabis can be used to alleviate symptoms related to the condition. 

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental condition that is developed following a traumatic event and can cause difficulty in adjusting to and coping with life after the event. PTSD interferes with functioning and relationships. Individuals with PTSD can recover but the symptoms can last for weeks, months, and even years. 

When an individual is experiencing a traumatic event, the body releases stress-related hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine in order to boost your energy in preparation for the fight or flight response. Many people recover from traumatic events naturally but when they do not, they are experiencing PTSD, which is kind of like getting your brain stuck in fight or flight mode. This means that even though the danger has subsided, the body continues to function as though it were under threat. 

What Are the Symptoms Associated With PTSD?

The Mayo Clinic explains that PTSD symptoms are grouped into (1) intrusive memories, (2) avoidance, (3) negative changes in thinking and mood as well as (4) changes in physical and emotional reaction. Symptoms associated with PTSD, like any other condition, differ from person to person. 

  • Intrusive Memories

The symptoms in this group include recurrent and unwanted memories of the event which causes distress, reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks, experiencing nightmares or distressing dreams about the event as well as severe distress when something reminds the individual of the traumatic event. 

  • Avoidance

These symptoms include efforts to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event as well as avoiding places, activities, and people that serve as reminders for the traumatic event. 

  • Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood

The symptoms in this group include negative thoughts about the self, others, and the world as well as feelings of hopelessness towards the future. Individuals suffering from PTSD may also experience memory problems which include trouble remembering important aspects of the event. Other symptoms include difficulty in maintaining close relationships, feeling detached, losing interest in activities previously enjoyed, difficulty in experiencing positive emotions as well as feeling emotionally numb. More severe cases of PTSD may even include suicidal thoughts. 

  • Changes in Physical and Emotional Reaction

The symptoms associated with this group is often referred to as “arousal symptoms” and includes symptoms of being easily startled/frightened, always being on guard, engaging in self-destructive behavior, having trouble sleeping, having trouble concentrating as well as feelings of irritability, anger, aggression, and overwhelming guilt or shame. 

The Mayo Clinic goes on to explain that children 6-years-old and younger may display symptoms of PTSD when re-enacting the traumatic events (or parts thereof) through play as well as reoccurring, frightening dreams. 

At the moment, medical professionals are not certain why some people get PTSD following traumatic events while others don’t. What is known is that stressful/traumatic experiences, mental health risks, features of personality as well as the manner in which your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones in response to stress, all play a role in suffering from the condition. 

Examples of the traumatic events that may lead to the development of PTSD in an individual includes physical abuse/assault, sexual violence, emotional abuse, being threatened by weapons as well as accidents and combat exposure. Additionally, PTSD can arise as a result of natural disasters, robberies, kidnapping, terrorist attacks, and pretty much any other event that is life-threatening. 

Cannabis and PTSD

According to a study done in 2019, most of the proposed benefits of cannabis for PTSD come from anecdotal reports, case reports, and observations, which all provide little evidence of the causal connection between cannabis and the alleviation of PTSD. However, despite a lack of understanding of a causal connection, individuals who experience PTSD have personally reported reduced anxiety, reduced arousal symptoms, and better sleep. 

Alfonso Abizaid (Ph.D.), Zul Merali (Ph.D.), and Hymie Anisman (Ph.D.) are the authors of the 2019 study, and they state that current models for investigating cannabis as an effective treatment for PTSD should do “multiple behavioral tests to simulate the presumed symptoms of PTSD in humans, although simulating intrusive thoughts is obviously not possible. As well, it is necessary to consider sex differences, the history of traumatic encounters across the lifespan, analyses of PTSD-related genetic and epigenetic influences.” They continue to explain that there is evidence that cannabis can alleviate symptoms related to PTSD, but (again) the available data to show the cannabis-PTSD relationship is sparse and is currently yielding mixed results (perhaps due to research done with either synthetic or botanical cannabinoids). 

A recent study published in 2020 provides evidence that cannabis can be used to assist with the alleviation of PTSD. Researchers analyzed data from over 400 individuals, who tracked their PTSD symptoms before and after cannabis use by means of an application called “Strainprint.” Over a period of 31 months, the group used the application more than 11,000 times. The study revealed that cannabis reduced the severity of intrusive and returning thoughts of the traumatic event by 62%, reduced flashbacks by 51%, irritability by 67% and anxiety by 57%. Unfortunately, the reduction in symptoms was not permanent but did provide momentary relief. 

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Carrie Cuttler, Assistant Professor at Washington State University, also observed that “a lot of people with PTSD do seem to turn to cannabis.” The authors suggest that more research involving longitudinal, long-term investigations are needed to examine these effects over time. 

In conclusion, few professionals have investigated the whole cannabis plant as an effective treatment for PTSD, and many of its proposed benefits are reported back directly from users. However, cannabis is widely used to reduce anxiety and stress, which are also key players in PTSD. So, at the very least, cannabis can alleviate the anxiety and stress related to the condition. Even though most of the evidence for cannabis’ effectiveness for PTSD is reported back by patients consuming cannabis, the safe nature of cannabis makes it worth a shot, especially when it can improve your quality of life.  

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