Cannabis addictionThere’s little in counselling and addiction research more divisive than the use of cannabis to help treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is caused when someone experiences or witnesses a terrifying event – such as warfare, sexual assault or a natural disaster – which can change the brain’s chemistry through the hyper-response of adrenaline and stress hormones.

It manifests itself through four classes of symptoms which usually appear within three months of the trauma, but which can lie dormant for years:

  • Avoidance: Sufferers may try to avoid thinking and talking about the trauma as well as people, places or activities associated with the event.
  • Re-experiencing: The recurrence of distressing memories either as dreams or during waking hours; flashbacks as if re-living the event; severe distress or physical reactions to reminders of the event.
  • Hyper-arousal: Sufferers may seem to be always on their guard, display irritability, aggressive and angry behaviour, overwhelming guilt or shame, self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol or drug abuse, trouble concentrating and sleeping, and being easily startled or frightened.
  • Negativity: These symptoms include a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, negative or “emotionally numb” moods, hopelessness, memory loss and a difficulty in maintaining relationships.

Alcohol and cannabis have long been used as a form of self-medication for those with PTSD and hence counselling has often gone hand-in-hand with alcohol treatment and addiction treatment.

But over the past 12 months there have been further studies which further muddy the waters around cannabis use and PTSD.

US figures show that around 7{7e66f01e68c52d858b59d425bd8f3886b02d30322136bee7d8e459b39be00af4}-8{7e66f01e68c52d858b59d425bd8f3886b02d30322136bee7d8e459b39be00af4} of the population suffer with PTSD at some point of their lives – that’s about 5.2million adults in any given year. It’s more than twice as likely to occur in women than in men.

The US state of New Mexico was the first state to list PTSD as a condition for the use of medical cannabis based on case reports. A report carried out between January and March 2014 into the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program found a “greater than 75{7e66f01e68c52d858b59d425bd8f3886b02d30322136bee7d8e459b39be00af4} reduction” in symptom scores when patients were using cannabis although it did call for further placebo-controlled study into using cannabis as a treatment.

In June 2014 research published in Neuropsychopharmacology magazine showed that giving rats synthetic cannabinoids can prevent the behavioural and physiological symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event. The researchers showed the cannabinoids triggered changes in areas of the brain associated with the formation and storing of traumatic memories and noted the study “contributes to the understanding of the brain basis of the positive effect cannabis has on PTSD”.

But research reported to the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry in December 2014 and carried out by Samuel T Wilkinson, MD, of the Yale University School of Medicine, countered that advice.

The observational study of 2276 members of the Veterans Administration treatment programs for PTSD between 1991 and 2011 evaluated the symptoms of PTSD, levels and drug and alcohol addiction and reports of violent behaviour among four groups.

Those who had never used marijuana had significantly lower symptom levels than those who started using marijuana as part of their treatment or who had continued to use marijuana throughout and after their observation. Those who stopped using marijuana when they were admitted also had significantly lower symptom levels on their discharge.

Most worryingly, those who started using marijuana on admission had highest levels of violent behaviour and highest levels of drug and alcohol use.

What’s clear is that cannabis can increase levels of anxiety in some users and that therapy offers the best course of action to deal with PTSD.

Contact the Robert Street Clinic to find a psychotherapist or psychologist who will help devise a treatment plan.