Marijuana Abuse and PTSD

3 min read · 7 sections

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a type of anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic experience. Causes of PTSD include:

The first month after the traumatic event, symptoms are associated with acute stress disorder (ASD). The person displays three or more symptoms:

When these symptoms persist or develop after the first month, this is PTSD instead of ASD. People who suffer PTSD may have nightmares, flashbacks to the event, intense mood swings, aggression, anxiety or fear about specific activities, emotional numbing, depression, suicidal thoughts, and avoidance of thoughts, feelings, or places reminiscent of the trauma. They may also show physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain or cramping, appetite changes, muscle aches, back pain, and more.

Although marijuana is being considered as a potential mental health treatment to ease anxiety in some people who suffer PTSD, the drug may enhance some symptoms associated with PTSD, making the condition worse.

Marijuana’s Effects on the Mind and Emotions

Anyone who abuse marijuana may suffer serious side effects, and the chances of these are increased in those who have PTSD. The drug is a psychedelic substance, and while it does not cause hallucinations, it can alter perception. For people struggling with anxiety, this can lead to a “bad trip.”

Other negative effects from marijuana include:

The amount of THC, the intoxicating chemical found in marijuana, has increased in the past several years as growers develop new strains. Most have close to 7 percent THC these days, so this can dramatically increase the high and associated paranoia. About 10 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent on it and struggle with addiction, regardless of the side effects. People who suffer mental health issues like PTSD or other anxiety disorders are more likely to abuse CNS depressants, which may alleviate anxiety for a short time. However, just like with alcohol or opioids, marijuana can actually make depression and anxiety worse over time.

Marijuana and Triggered Stress

While PTSD is triggered by a traumatic event, suffering from other mental health conditions can make PTSD symptoms more intense. Abusing marijuana can trigger other mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, and psychosis, if the individual is predisposed to these problems.

A comprehensive study conducted by the US Department of Veterans Affairs looked at data from 2,276 representative veterans who suffered from PTSD and used marijuana concurrently. Data from 1991 to 2011 showed that marijuana abuse, especially for a long time, was correlated with increased severity of PTSD symptoms, not alleviation, and the drug was concurrently associated with higher levels of violence and other substance abuse.

These results go against anecdotal data, in which symptoms from PTSD, like anxiety or insomnia, are temporarily relieved through marijuana abuse. If the drug is legalized on the federal level for mental health treatment in the future, as many groups are pushing for, it is important to understand that it should be used like other psychiatric medications: for short-term relief of symptoms, so the individual can focus on therapy to treat their mental health.

Take Our Marijuana Addiction Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute marijuana addiction self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with a marijuana dependency. The evaluation consists of 10 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a marijuana use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

Self-Medication of PTSD Symptoms

Among adolescents who suffered both PTSD and substance abuse disorders, exposure to trauma appeared to induce addiction to a drug like marijuana in up to 59 percent of study participants. After suffering from domestic abuse, bullying, sexual trauma, or disaster, adolescents were more likely to begin abusing drugs like alcohol or marijuana to manage PTSD. Drugs change emotional reactions, in some instances numbing sensations and inducing relaxation for a short period.

Among veterans seeking mental health care, marijuana use and PTSD are frequently self-reported in correlation with each other. As a form of self-medication, marijuana does act on some parts of the brain that lead to feeling relaxed, but these areas are not associated with receptors that will alleviate PTSD symptoms.

The VA study showed that veterans with PTSD had a greater availability of cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain. These are naturally occurring receptors, although cannabinoids from marijuana will bind to them artificially. Because of this greater availability, very short-term use of marijuana can alleviate some of the stress associated with PTSD; however, long-term use creates tolerance to the drug, so those receptors require more marijuana to function.

Being intoxicated, suffering from cravings, and struggling with aggression and fear all at once makes it much harder for people struggling with co-occurring PTSD and marijuana addiction to hold down a job and maintain healthy relationships. This isolation, in turn, can enhance PTSD symptoms, leading to further drug-seeking behaviors.

Ending an Addiction to Marijuana and Treating PTSD

Rehabilitation programs that focus on treating PTSD and substance abuse at the same time have good rates of success and are imperative for those suffering from co-occurring disorders. One program for female victims of domestic violence showed a 63 percent retention rate among participants. While there were no statistics about abstinence or relapse rates, simply remaining in the program can improve sobriety rates among people with co-occurring disorders.

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