In the U.S., up to 70% of adults experience a traumatic event, or series of events, in their lifetime. While the majority will not develop an adverse mental health response to these situations, a full 20% of adults will go on to contract post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD is a debilitating anxiety condition, and people with PTSD can go on to develop maladaptive coping mechanisms for the disorder, including drug or alcohol abuse, or agoraphobia. While PTSD is devastating for patients and their loved ones, there are ways to manage the condition and alleviate distressing symptoms associated with the disorder. Subclinical trials have found that CBD products can help those with PTSD, although there is no such thing as a “cure-all” for this mental health condition.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can happen to a person who experiences first-hand, or witnesses, a traumatic event. Domestic violence, intimate partner abuse, car accidents, natural disasters, rape, combat, and other assaults or threats of violence can trigger PTSD.

A person does not have to experience the trauma themselves. Seeing another person being assaulted, severely injured, or dying can trigger the condition as well. Also, people can get PTSD when they haven’t experienced a physical injury. The threat of violence and injury can be enough to trigger PTSD in susceptible persons. People who work in specific job fields where they are exposed to other people’s trauma through second-hand accounts can have a cumulative effect on them, triggering PTSD. Police officers, social workers, and first responders are at risk of developing the condition from second-hand exposure to trauma.

It is a myth that only military or combat veterans can get PTSD. Anyone can develop the condition. However, combat veterans do have higher rates of PTSD than the general population. 20% of military veterans of the Iraq War have diagnosed PTSD, while 10% of Gulf War veterans and 30% of Vietnam War veterans have the condition. Only 17% of military personnel are women, but 71% of female military members have PTSD, with the majority of cases stemming from sexual assault. Also, one out of nine civilian women is thought to have PTSD, with up to half of all outpatient mental health patients diagnosed with the condition. During the American Civil War, PTSD was called, “soldier’s heart,” and during WWI and WWII it was referred to as “shell shock” and “combat fatigue.”

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder. One of the most significant symptoms of the disease is flashbacks or intrusive memories of the traumatic event. People with PTSD can have a flashback if they are confronted with something that reminds them of the event, be it a person, place, smell, sight, or sound. The condition, if left untreated, can cause the individual to avoid those triggers, and can sometimes lead to agoraphobia. PTSD is also accompanied by panic attacks, depression, nightmares, anger, and feelings of detachment from others.

What are the most common causes of PTSD?

  • Severe accidents
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Childhood abuse or domestic violence
  • Second-hand exposure to traumatic events
  • Near-death experiences and severe illnesses or injury
  • Traumatic childbirth experiences
  • Military combat
  • Torture

Anyone can get PTSD, regardless of their ethnicity, age, gender, or socio-economic status. It is not fully understood why some people are more likely to develop the disorder than others. But there are a few known risk factors that increase a person’s chances of getting PTSD. Those include experiencing episodes of depression or anxiety in the past and not having a healthy support system.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can vary in duration and intensity. Most people will develop the symptoms of PTSD within the first three months after exposure to trauma, and most cases will resolve within six months after symptoms first occur. In a minority of people, PTSD becomes chronic. Untreated cases of PTSD can also increase a person’s chances of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. People with PTSD are also likely to avoid places and other things that trigger their “fight or flight” or anxiety response. This can lead to cases of agoraphobia and social isolation, which increases a person’s chances of becoming depressed. It is crucial that people with PTSD seek counseling, support groups, and take medications or supplements to alleviate symptoms.

PTSD symptoms are also broken down into four, distinct categories – re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, mood or cognition symptoms, and reactivity symptoms. For an official diagnosis of PTSD, an individual must have all of the following signs and symptoms or more symptoms for at least a month:

  • One avoidance symptom
  • One re-experiencing symptom
  • Two reactivity symptoms
  • Two mood symptoms

Avoidance Symptoms

  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings surrounding the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, events, or things that remind the person of the event

Panic attacks and intrusive thoughts that occur after a person is reminded of the trauma can lead to avoidance behaviors. For example, if a person was sexually assaulted in their bedroom, they may avoid going into that room for fear of a panic attack or distressing memories and thoughts being triggered. People who have PTSD symptoms from a car accident may avoid driving or being a passenger in a vehicle.

Re-experiencing Symptoms

  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive, terrifying thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Panic attacks

Re-experiencing symptoms can severely inhibit a person’s regular routines and the ability to function. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to calm themselves and get through the day, increasing the chances of developing substance use disorder. Re-experiencing symptoms can start from a person’s thoughts or their feelings, while events and places or other people can trigger these symptoms as well, making them unpredictable and even more distressing for patients.

Reactivity Symptoms

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Angry outbursts
  • Being easily frightened or startled
  • Feeling on edge or tense

Reactivity symptoms are typically stable and aren’t triggered like re-experiencing symptoms. It can be difficult for a person to engage in daily tasks when they feel tense and on-edge constantly, and they can be prone to irritability and angry outbursts.

Mood or Cognition Symptoms

  • Difficulty remembering parts of the traumatic event
  • Negative self-perception or thoughts of the world
  • Feelings of guilt or blame
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in enjoyable activities

These types typically begin or get worse after a traumatic event, and aren’t caused by another health issue or substance abuse. Cognition or mood symptoms often make a person with PTSD feel detached from other people and loved ones and can lead to an episode of depression.

It is important to understand the difference between PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) since symptoms and triggers can often overlap. ASD can also develop into PTSD. The most significant difference between these two disorders is that a diagnosis of PTSD cannot be officially given unless the symptoms are present for at least a month, and there are symptoms from each of the four PTSD symptom categories. ASD is also more likely than PTSD to involve mood and cognition symptoms, such as negative self-perception, and difficulty concentrating. People with PTSD are more likely to experience panic attacks and intrusive thoughts.

What are the standard treatment options for PTSD and their difficulties?

The most common methods of treating PTSD include talk therapy, behavioral therapies, medications, or a combination of both. The most common types of medicines used to treat PTSD are antidepressants, and talk therapy for PTSD is typically prescribed for 6 to 12 weeks, although therapy can last for longer in some cases. Research has found that having a healthy support system outside of treatment is incredibly beneficial for people living with PTSD.

Unfortunately, PTSD is not an easy condition to treat. While a sizable number of PTSD patients develop the disease from exposure to a single traumatic event, women who have PTSD are more likely to present with complex, multi-faceted exposures to trauma. Patients with PTSD who have the condition because of repeat assaults, abuse, and traumatic events can be challenging to treat with conventional methods. Ongoing therapy is often needed, and side effects to antidepressant medications must be taken into account. In addition, therapists who treat PTSD patients are also at risk of developing secondary trauma from repeat exposure to the memories of these events. It can be difficult for patients and their loved ones to find a qualified therapist who can treat them for the long-term, although it is not impossible.

A minority of patients will develop treatment-resistant PTSD, where, despite therapy and medications, they will continue to struggle with some symptoms of the disorder. The most common symptoms people have with treatment-resistant PTSD are persistent social withdrawal and trouble sleeping.

What symptoms of PTSD can CBD products help treat?

CBD products have shown promising results in studies on their effectiveness for a wide range of different disorders. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, CBD oil and derivative products are legal to buy, sell, and use. While CBD is not a cure for PTSD, it can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with the condition, without the severe side effects that often occur with antidepressant medications.

Studies have found that when CBD is administered after a traumatic event, the cannabidiol will interfere with the brain’s ability to store and consolidate memories of the event, which reduces the risk of patients going on to develop distressing, PTSD symptoms. The research suggests that CBD can stop a person’s brain from retrieving traumatic memories, or by stimulating the brain to purge traumatic memories, otherwise known as the brain’s memory “extinction” mechanism.

Studies have also shown that CBD can alleviate the symptoms of insomnia which are often present in PTSD cases. CBD can also reduce anxiety and depression symptoms in cases of treatment-resistant PTSD.

Can PTSD patients use CBD in conjunction with behavioral therapies?

Cognitive-based therapies are the most effective for PTSD. Research suggests that CBD in conjunction with behavior-based therapies can be highly effective for alleviating symptoms and encouraging the brain’s natural memory extinction processes. In fact, research has found that the combination of CBD and behavior-based therapies ability to induce this mechanism may be the most beneficial for PTSD patients. Other benefits of CBD for mental health conditions in addition to PTSD include that it is safe for humans at high doses and that it does not create tolerance or dependence in the patient.

What are some resources for people with PTSD and their family members?

Having a strong support group is extremely beneficial for treating PTSD. For those who have the condition and may not have strong family support, reaching out to a support group for PTSD can help. Finding a qualified therapist experienced with treating people living with PTSD and their loved ones is also critical to alleviating symptoms.

NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group and NAMI Peer-to-Peer Educational Program

NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group and NAMI Peer-to-Peer Educational Program are peer-led support groups and educational groups for people with mental health conditions and their families.

NAMI Homefront

NAMI Homefront is a support group for families of military veterans with PTSD.

The PTSD Alliance

The PTSD Alliance offers families and patients links to resources and ways to contact mental health professionals who are experienced with treating PTSD.

Will insurance cover CBD treatments?

Insurance does not cover CBD treatments. The reason why insurance companies will not cover CBD treatments or medical marijuana treatments is that the DEA still classifies marijuana, even medical marijuana and therefore CBD derived from marijuana (as opposed to HUGS products which are derived from industrial hemp), as a schedule 1 substance. Even though there is a growing body of evidence that medical marijuana and CBD products are useful for treating a variety of mental health and neurological conditions, insurance plans won’t cover the products yet. However, high-quality CBD is often affordable and easy to obtain from reputable manufacturers.

Some insurance plans may cover mental health treatment, the cost of antidepressants, and also cognitive-based therapies. Many mental health facilities offer repayment plans or financial aid to those who qualify. Patients under a certain income threshold or who are unemployed will be eligible for Medicaid, a state-run health insurance program.

Last updated May 22 2019