Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects approximately 7.7 million Americans over the age of 18. While many people associate PTSD with military combat, it can occur in response to any life-threatening event, from assault to natural disasters. Many trauma survivors are able to return to normal after a period of healing time, but some don’t. Instead, they experience PTSD symptoms that significantly impair their ability to live a normal, happy life. Symptoms and severity vary by person but generally those suffering from PTSD experience three main types of disruptive reactions: re-experiencing the event, numbing and avoidance, and arousal symptoms like angry outbursts or inability to concentrate. Cannabis is effective for treating all three.
Re-experiencing the Event
People who have experienced trauma often re-experience the event through intrusive memories. When these memories are hyper-realistic, they’re called flashbacks. Even when they’re not as severe as a flashback, traumatic memories can impact normal living. These memories bring back the feelings of terror and helplessness felt during the original event and the effects manifest both mentally and physically. This can lead to uncontrolled crying, anger or other publically unacceptable emotions. Since these memories can strike at any time without warning, it encourages the PTSD sufferer to isolate.
How Cannabis Can Help: The compounds in cannabis mimic chemicals already found naturally in our brains. Using cannabis releases dopamine among other feel-good brain chemicals and since cannabinoids are so similar to our own endocannabinoids, the brain recognizes these increased levels as natural. These mood-elevating compounds are often enough to free the mind, albeit temporarily, from its traumatic prison. Cannabis impairs the memory to some degree as well and the psychoactive effects make the user more easily distracted by pleasant and amusing things.
Avoidance and Numbing
Avoidance symptoms manifest in the attempts to avoid reminders of the event. Anything can be a trigger for someone with PTSD. For one person it may be a specific location like a park or bank, for another it could be a smell or sound. For some it’s a combination. Over time, PTSD sufferers experience more and more triggers, again giving them incentive to isolate in order to avoid them.
Numbing symptoms range from memory loss to a loss of enjoyment in things and activities that previously brought you happiness. Trauma survivors may lose interest in socializing, lack motivation, experience depression and feel an impending sense of doom.
How Cannabis Can Help: The calming effect of cannabis can relieve anxiety and reduce the fear response making it easier to venture out where potential triggers lie in wait. The extra time needed to process incoming information while using cannabis gives the brain a chance to accurately assign a level of perceived danger, reducing the fight-or-flight response.
Cannabis has always been a communal substance. It appeals to such a broad range of people, crossing geographic, racial, religious, and income barriers. With cannabis legalized in many states, the cannabis community is more visible than ever. This community could become a valuable social support for an isolated PTSD sufferer. Likewise, the sharing of cannabis naturally fosters communication. This could make someone with PTSD more comfortable in talking and sharing with others – something direly needed in the healing process.
Arousal symptoms cover a range of issues from insomnia to extreme irritability. A person with PTSD may be hypervigilant, prone to angry outbursts or startle easily/overreact to minor stimuli. Insomnia, which is extremely common in PTSD, exacerbates other symptoms as well as impairs a person’s ability to handle stress and anxiety.
How Cannabis Can Help: Again the soothing, calming nature of cannabis can combat these issues by helping the trauma victim regulate their mood, experience improved sleep and relax instead of being “on guard.” Both THC and CBD help sleep problems from relieving physical pain and discomfort to allowing the mind to release negative, harmful thoughts. THC in particular has been shown to diminish nightmares and night terrors in people with PTSD.