Many people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have turned to marijuana for help. Cannabis is actually one of the most common illicit substances used by PTSD patients in an effort to cope with their experiences. In this first installment in HERB’s Marijuana & PTSD series, we’ll walk you through how the plant can help you cope with symptoms of the condition.
Marijuana and PTSD
There are many conditions that can be helped by medical marijuana. While some argue that data on medical benefits are weak for some of these ailments, people are hard-pressed to make a case against medical marijuana in PTSD. In fact, evidence pointing to the potential effectiveness of cannabinoid medicines for PTSD treatment is quite strong. So strong that many believe cannabinoids could be the most effective way to manage the disorder.
As with all claims about medical marijuana, advanced and repeated clinical studies are needed to confirm that the herb a viable treatment option. However, many patients have found much-needed relief in the marijuana plant. Here’s how cannabis may help you cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Coping with symptoms
Insomnia and nightmares are very common in those suffering from post-traumatic stress. Not only are they anxiety and stress provoking in their own right, but the extreme disruptions that they cause in your sleep cycle makes you more likely to experience negative symptoms the next day.
It’s well-known that marijuana can help with this. A heavy indica can not only help you fall asleep, but it can help you stay asleep longer and reduce the number of dreams you experience. In 2009, Canadian researchers found that administering a synthetic cannabinoid (Nabilone) prior to sleep successfully reduced nightmares in PTSD patients. Many patients who have used the real herb itself identify better sleep as one of its main benefits.
Panic attacks and unnecessary fear
Not everyone has the same response when they use marijuana. In some people, the herb may actually increase anxiety and trigger panic attacks. High doses of THC have been linked to increased anxiety symptoms in some, which has given the herb a bit of a bad reputation for certain patients.
In the case of those with PTSD, however, things seem to be a bit different. Turns out, marijuana may actually help extinguish your body’s conditioned fear response.
After a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events, your body remembers and physiologically responds to the experience. Over time, your body can begin to produce these learned fear responses with seemingly little stimulus. This can lead to a panic attack or another type of stress response.
One study published in 2009 found that CBD reduced the anxiety response to fearful faces. Other research has found that endocannabinoids actually play a role in modulating our fear response. One study found that mice with blocked CB1 receptors (one of the receptors that THC connects with) were unable to forget the emotional response associated with a traumatic foot shock. In mice that could eliminate the memory and control their fear response, levels of endocannabinoids spiked during the brain’s memory-extinguishing phase.
These are positive signs that marijuana, particularly marijuana containing CBD, may help tone down panic and fear responses.
Flashbacks may be one of the most debilitating symptoms of PTSD. During a flashback, you suffer through the experience which has caused you intense pain again and again. Your body begins to produce stress responses similar to those of the time of the event as if that experience was currently happening to you in the present moment.
The same mechanisms that make cannabis a viable option for calming fear in PTSD also lend to flashback reduction. Cannabinoids like THC may be able to help by deleting haunting, negative memories. The researchers that tested foot shocks in mice ultimately concluded that our natural endocannabinoids “facilitate extinction of aversive memories.”
Other research as found that those suffering from PTSD have lower levels of endocannabinoids in their systems. This means that cannabinoid medicines, including THC and CBD, may possibly be used to replenish and correct the imbalance.
Successful cannabis treatment for PTSD was recorded in one incredible story published in 2012. A patient had undergone repeated sexual abuse from the time he was four years old until he was about 15. When he began receiving psychiatric care, he would experience intense, disrupting flashbacks to times of abuse. During inpatient treatment, he learned how to use cannabis resin to treat his flashbacks from other patients. His physician explains:
“He had discovered that he could prevent dissociative states by smoking cannabis when he first felt reactivation and intensification of traumatic memories experienced as flashbacks. Although he still experienced flashback phenomena after the use of cannabis, he would smoke cannabis to alter their course and intensity. The patient described that cannabis use would assist him with the increased ability to maintain cognitive control. Though it did not eliminate traumatic images, cannabis allowed the patient to view them on an ‘inner screen’ from a distance”.
The same patient cited above experienced strong urges to self-mutilate after a flashback. Self-harm and suicide are two very serious outcomes of untreated PTSD. After treating himself with marijuana, the young man felt a significant reduction in the urge to self-mutilate. He prevented self-harm by smoking marijuana immediately after experiencing a flashback.
A study published in 2014 found that suicide rates fell by 5% in states that allow medical marijuana. In the young male population, rates fell by over 10%. This is good news for young veterans with PTSD who are lucky enough to come home to a medical marijuana state.
Decreases in self-harming behavior have been shown in other disorders as well. Though these conditions are quite different, marijuana has been known to reduce extreme self-injurious behavior in those with severe cases of Autism and obsessive compulsive disorder. Traumatic events, depression, and other mental strife are often linked with self-harming behaviors, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that picking up a joint is far preferable to picking up a weapon or subjecting yourself to some other kind of self-harm.
One user expressed their experience in a Marijuana.com forum on the subject, explaining:
“I used to be a cutter…and I gave myself a few cigarette burns. Still have the scars. And I was on my way to being an alcoholic.
Turns out all I needed was to be introduced to weed to get over all that.
The idea is the emotional pain is more intolerable than physical. When you’re emotionally distressed, inflicting pain on yourself releases endorphins which make you feel better. Also, there’s something about focusing all your emotional pain into something physical that you can deal with and heal. Turning the non-physical emotions into physical wounds that can mend. Thus, you never really mend the real wounds, but just make superficial ones to take their place. In this way, temporary moods and feelings end up being permanent scars”.
Some patients with PTSD experience strong symptoms of “over-arousal” or excessive agitation. Both your brain and your body may feel overly hyped-up, restless, and all-around irritated. Medical marijuana may be able to help ease these sensations.
One study found that cannabis use was associated with a decrease in over-arousal, thus making it easier to get to sleep. This makes sense, as marijuana is a substance which suppresses excess activity in the brain. The depressant qualities of the herb produce a sense of ease and relaxation. Both of these things can help give you some relief when you feel like you’re having trouble controlling or simply withstanding your thoughts and emotions.
Of course, some people find that cannabis actually increases their feelings of agitation. If you experience this or notice a connection between the two, you may want to try a different option. As always, consult your physician before making any changes in your treatment plan.
Marijuana can be a saving grace for people experiencing post-traumatic stress. But, it’s important to mention that the herb is no replacement for psychiatric treatment. Treatments such as talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based therapy can be extremely helpful in teaching you how to better manage your symptoms and understand your experience.
With that said, cannabis may prove to be a powerful tool when you need it most. Between reducing the intensity of flashbacks, relieving agitation, lessening stress responses, and aiding in sleep, many patients have finally found moments of peace thanks to the herb.
Has marijuana helped you or someone you know cope with PTSD? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below.