Earlier this month, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed into legislation a bill that adds Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder better known as PTSD to the list of conditions covered under the state’s medical marijuana program. He went on record stating that nearly 20,000 New Yorkers could be aided by this legislation, among them veterans, first-responders, and victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
While this is certainly progress, PTSD (like cannabis) remains misunderstood. So, what exactly is this disorder about?
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, PTSD develops in certain people who have experienced “shocking, scary, or dangerous events.” These events trigger fear, a natural reaction. However, in PTSD, the “Fight or Flight” response that fear elicits continues even after the threat dissipates. While the disorder can certainly develop after a traumatic event (such as being in a war) it can also develop from things like the death of a loved one.
The signs and symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person; this deviation is seen when it comes to time too: some people experience symptoms that are short-lived, for others the disorder is more chronic. Some people experience symptoms quickly after the triggering event, while others might not develop signs for a year or longer.
The diagnostic criteria include the following for a period of at least one month: one re-experiencing symptom, one avoidance symptom, two arousal and reactivity symptoms, and two cognition and mood symptoms.
PTSD can cause things like flashbacks, bad dreams, intrusive thoughts, staying away from certain objects, feeling edgy, outbursts of anger, sleep disruption, problems with memory, loss of interest, and pessimism
Anyone can develop PTSD – studies suggest that about 8 percent of the population will experience it at some point. Women tend to develop it more often than men (though the willingness for women to be more open about matters of mental illness may play a role in these statistics) and genetics are believed to weigh in too.
Resilience factors, on the other hand, reduce the odds of PTSD. People who seek support from others, learn to adapt to dangerous situations and possess a positive coping strategy are less likely to be affected.
Enter the American Legion….
The American Legion has emerged as a harsh critic against federal marijuana prohibition and PTSD is one of the reasons why. Per the New York Times, a group of bipartisan veterans have been working for over a year against the US government for which they served. They argue, in part, that “access to medical marijuana could ease suffering and reduce suicide rates among solders who return from the horrors of war.”
Many in the group, a group that consists of over two million members, have opted to use cannabis over the alternative: harsher drugs they call “zombie drugs.” The latter includes opioids and antidepressants.
They petitioned the feds in 2016 asking for two things: removal of marijuana from the Schedule I category and more privately funded growers (growers that could bolster medical research). While the government has said in the past that they would allow for more growing, they haven’t budged from the Schedule I classification. Until they do, the true potential of cannabis will remain undiscovered.
Why Cannabis Helps
According to Herb Magazine there are many reasons why cannabis helps those suffering from PTSD. For one – and as mentioned above – cannabis is a safer alternative to other medications. But, more directly, CBD and THC both provide benefit.
PTSD occurs because of a learned-fear, something in the past that happened and caused anxiety in the sufferer. CBD, one of the major cannabinoids in marijuana, can reduce the reaction to fear (learned and otherwise). It offers a calming effect, the reason it’s used in all sorts of anxiety disorders (and not merely PTSD).
One of the most effective treatments for these disorders (including PTSD) is exposure therapy. This is a type of therapy that does exactly what the name insinuates: it exposes people to their triggers
It works on the old “face your fear” adage – people who are afraid of heights are instructed to stand on top of buildings, people who are afraid of spiders are instructed to look at pictures of arachnids or even hold them in their hands, people who are afraid of germs are instructed to refrain from compulsive washing.
The goal is desensitization: the more a person is exposed to their triggers, the less the anxiety they will elicit. This is a process called “extinction,” something CBD may enhance.
But THC proves helpful too. THC engages the body in a fashion similar to anandamide, a neurotransmitter, and endocannabinoid. Anandamide plays a role in the “runner’s high,” the feeling of euphoria that exercise creates. It’s not only tied to working out, of course: it can help regulate joy in the body. In people with PTSD, anandamide levels are believed to be much lower than in controls.
Marijuana can also be beneficial to sleep, something that can come sparingly for people with PTSD. But, strain is important – sativas that energize are better used for socializing than snoozing. Indicas, on the other hand, are more conducive to rest.
Naturally, THC content comes into play – as most people who use pot know, strains high in THC can lead to paranoia. For people already suffering from anxiety, this clearly makes things worse. That’s why CBD is a good option, or at least THC/CBD hybrids – the CBD helps counteract the paranoia the THC induces.
Anyone considering using cannabis to help manage PTSD would benefit from speaking with their local budtender and taking their advice (or the advice of fellow sufferers). Some of the strains that may be helpful include: Blue Dream, Cannatonic, Harlequin, and Mango Kush.