How Cannabis Can Help Us Deal With Trauma
Unsplash | Drew Graham
Seventy percent—that’s approximately how many Canadians are exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes.
Of those, one in ten will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
PTSD was previously seen as a soldier’s disease—a direct result of the trauma experienced in war. But over the years, extensive psychological research has changed how we understand trauma.
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, “Traumatic events are shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threaten death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.”
Significantly, these events don’t have to be direct to have a negative impact on our mental health. Witnessing or hearing about traumatic events can also trigger vicarious trauma that can have lasting effects. Symptoms can onset months or even years later.
Symptoms of PTSD are categorized into three groups:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
- Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
- Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
This disorder can range from disturbing to debilitating and disabling.
The science of how cannabis can help
When it comes to assessing cannabis’ potential medical benefits, PTSD is perhaps the most widely researched condition. It is also the mental illness responsible for one-third of medical cannabis requests.
Numerous studies have shown how cannabis use can help reduce PTSD symptoms, but they are also riddled with limitations. As of yet, no randomized, controlled, clinical trials have been conducted but one has been launched to further understand cannabis’ potential role in helping people with PTSD.
However, a group of researchers have already found a clue as to how cannabis may help in the management or treatment of PTSD—and it lies in the endocannabinoid system.
We know the endocannabinoid system is diffuse throughout our brains and nervous systems, sending signals that influence things like pain modulation, stress, mood, and memory. Any imbalance in this system will affect our ability to process, manage, and deal with trauma.
What these researchers discovered was that people with PTSD have what can be called an “endocannabinoid deficiency.”
Specifically, they found people with PTSD, especially women, have significantly lower concentrations of anandamide—an endogenous cannabinoid receptor that impairs memory—than people without PTSD.
This deficiency also impacts our CB1 receptors. In a balanced endocannabinoid system, these receptors modulate fear and anxiety. When an anandamide deficiency exists, proper processing is disrupted. Our ability to manage negative emotions is impaired.
This could explain why it is so difficult for people with PTSD to forget their traumatic event and find relief from classic PTSD symptoms like fear and anxiety.
While causation is not yet clear, the study suggests that beginning to heal from trauma means replenishing the endocannabinoid system’s natural balance.
Treating mental illness with cannabis is still a controversial topic. While many studies have shown promise in this area, others remain that reveal risks.
For instance, people with PTSD can be considered a vulnerable population and this can increase their chances of developing Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD). Cross-sectional studies have shown that in veterans with PTSD, CUD was associated with self-harm and suicide.
Cannabis has also been criticized for impairing cognitive functioning which can result in a numbing and avoidance of symptoms and hinder a full recovery. There is also risk of psychotic disorders in patients with high-risk genotypes.
So what’s the final word?
There isn’t one—yet. As research in this area grows, so too will our understanding of how cannabis can help us deal with trauma. For now, we know the endocannabinoid system plays a role, and balance could be the key to healing. However, we cannot ignore certain risk factors. Always consult your medical team to decide on the best treatment method.