Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder first diagnosed in soldiers and veterans, caused by exposure to life threatening or life changing events. Other traumatic experiences such as serious injury/accidents, natural disasters, physical, sexual or emotional assault, or any event where the threat of death is present-coupled with feelings of helplessness, horror and intense fear- may cause this disorder. While most people will experience some symptoms after a traumatic event, those with PTSD will have ongoing symptoms for longer than a month and may feel like they are constantly in “fight or flight” mode.
The “fight or flight” response evolved as a protection mechanism to allow us to quickly respond to danger, even when we have not physically or psychologically prepared for it. An example of this process experienced by most is hearing a sound in the dead of night in your home. The hypothalamus, a portion of the brain responsible for metabolic processes and other activities of the autonomic nervous system, signals the body to release “stress hormones” such as adrenalin (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and up to 30 other hormones, including cortisol. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, pupils dilate and you may experience tunnel vision, muscles tense up-including the small muscles attached to your hairs causing “goosebumps”, smooth muscles relax to allow more oxygen in the lungs, and digestion and immune systems slow or shut down to provide more energy to other functions. Once the threat is over, your body will return to normal. In patient’s with PTSD, the fear and anxiety is often long-lasting, and is triggered by circumstances that would not normally be perceived as a threat, like crowds, cars backfiring, or even memories.
The National Institute of Mental Health groups PTSD symptoms into three categories:
- • Flashbacks
• Bad Dreams
• Frightening thoughts
- • Staying away from places, events, or objects and reminders of the experience
• Feeling emotionally numb
• Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
• Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
• Having trouble remembering the dangerous event
- • Being easily startled
• Feeling tense or on edge
• Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts
THC Aides in Fear Extinction
Fear extinction is a form of inhibitory learning that allows for the adaptive control of conditioned fear responses. In other words, being exposed to triggers that cause the fear, (pictures, sounds, and places) enough times that the patient would “unlearn” the fear. Research has found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana acts in the same way, speeding up the process…“The present findings provide the first evidence that pre-extinction administration of THC facilitates extinction of conditioned fear in humans.”
Marijuana Treats Multiple PTSD Symptoms
In 2009, New Mexico became the first state to allow PTSD as a qualifying condition for the use of medical marijuana. In a survey of 80 medical marijuana patients in their program, there was an average reduction of over 75% in the patient’s CAPS symptom score. While this research is favorable, the government demands more clinical studies, while making the process for receiving the marijuana for the studies almost impossible to navigate. After a long battle, Dr. Sisley of the University of Arizona had recently received funding for PTSD research. She planned on studying whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana will help reduce PTSD symptoms, along with research on multiple strains of marijuana and their effects.
“Twenty-two veterans a day are killing themselves,” said Dr. Sisley. “They’re not benefiting from conventional medicine. And while many are using marijuana to help them with this debilitating disorder, they want it to be legitimized. They want data. They want to know what doses to take. They want to be able to discuss this with their doctors. The Obama administration is hearing this, because allowing us to do this study represents a major shift in policy.” Unfortunately, Dr. Sisley was informed a few days ago that her contract with U of A would not be renewed, putting a stop to her study until she can find a new university. She will have to go through the review process again, delaying this much needed research.
The U.S. Army found that one in eight soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. What you need to keep in mind, is that most of these soldiers experienced not one, but multiple and/or ongoing traumatic events throughout their service. Many patients with PTSD are reporting that medical marijuana eases their anxiety, allowing them to cope better with their emotions and fears. Nightmares and flashbacks decrease in frequency and they experience a more restful sleep allowing the mind and body to assist in healing. The freedom to choose plant-based medication should not be taken away from veterans or any Americans.