by Jen Shepherd, R.N.

Following the tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on October 1, Las Vegas has been affected on a massive scale. With 22,000 in attendance the night of the concert, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will impact many in our community for months to come. Following this awful event, I noted many initial PTSD symptoms in both myself and friends and wanted to assist by giving the most current information on how to use cannabis effectively for treating PTSD as well as how to develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with crisis and trauma. 

Trauma and PTSD are something most people cannot label with words or choose not to talk about when they are experiencing it. More than ever it’s important to take care of each other to prevent prolonged distress and not ignore any symptoms. Mental health is our key to happiness and is vital to our quality of life.

When a person has PTSD, it is important for the person to understand what is occurring at the fundamental levels of their body. When undergoing a trauma or crisis, the brain switches into “fight or flight” mode. So what does that mean? It means that all the blood is being pulled from normal activities to your muscles. Instead of being in a “normal rest and digest mode,” your body activates to the “fight or flight” mode, preparing you for survival. Even with psychological traumas, this occurs. PTSD affects your autonomic nervous system, which controls operations that require zero thinking, such as breathing, circulation, and digestion. 

There are three categories of PTSD:

  1. Hyper-arousal – easily frightened, trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, cyclical thinking/reoccurring thoughts, inability to relax
  2. Avoidance – avoiding daily activities and friends, staying home
  3. Re-experiencing – reliving the trauma through flashbacks 

PTSD is characterized by symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, “edginess,” paranoia, and heightened senses persisting three months or longer. It is important to note symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event so as to prevent the potential for changes in the brain that can occur after prolonged PTSD symptoms since they can create decreased levels of anandamide production. Anandamide is the “bliss molecule” that allows humans to be naturally happy. Low levels of anandamide lead to chronic anxiety and aversive memory consolidation by not allowing your brain to get rid of unwanted “forget” memories. This contributes to the inability to be happy, which means CB1receptors are not triggered to deactivate traumatic events that assist in forgetting. 

Treatment of initial symptoms prevents long-term issues and assists in resetting your body to rest and digest mode. It is easier to overcome the root cause of trauma once symptom relief occurs which happens with proper sleep, proper appetite, and a feeling of safety. Once these three basic needs have been met, the root cause can be addressed and the steps to healing can begin, which include:

  1. Release stored trauma 
  2. Fear extension 
  3. Ability to develop new positive thought patterns

The endocannabinoid system, which is a group of endogenous cannabinoid receptors located in the brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, regulates the hippocampus part of your brain that’s responsible for long-term storage, which is where traumatic memories are stored. Prolonged PTSD that goes untreated can lead to shrinking in the hippocampus, but cannabis can restore volume through neurogenesis. Cannabis can assist in the initial symptom relief and helps in developing new thought patterns, which aids in complete PTSD recovery by creating new brain cells through the neurogenesis process. 

Goals in using cannabis for effective initial therapy of PTSD:

  1. Decrease in flashbacks/reoccurring cyclical thoughts
  2. Decrease in nightmares
  3. Decrease in negative thought patterns
  4. Reduce arousal if in hyper-arousal state

Cannabis is able to accomplish these goals by closing down the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, which shuts off stress response. When the body is stressed, hormones of cortisol and aldosterone are released from adrenal glands. These are steroid hormones. By shutting off the stress response, cannabis assists the body into homeostasis and rest and digest mode. This is for persons experiencing the hyper-arousal state. Adrenals (root chakra for you yogis) utilize CB1 in the receptor site, meaning delta 9 THC is the key to this receptor and, in theory, should assist with regulating these hormones. 

For those in the avoidance category, cannabis can help by assisting in the prefrontal cortex processes of the brain. The neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are regulated and assist with depression. 

Cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD) is said to have anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, and antidepressant properties. Most effective CBD therapies are noted to be routine and taken like daily supplements. For relief of ailments such as recurring thoughts, inhalation or sublingual is the quickest route with initial effects usually occuring within 15 minutes. Finding the proper CBD/THC ratio is important and terpenes can also play a factor in effectiveness. 

Overall goals in trauma recovery: 

  1. Continue necessary activities
  2. Restore emotions
  3. Sustain self-esteem
  4. Feel safe and established
  5. Maintain and enjoy personal interactions
  6. Live, laugh, love, and be grateful

Every individual handles response to trauma differently. Not everyone will need to talk about the issues or need extensive assistance in recovery. The situation and the person’s ability to redirect thoughts and feelings determine their recovery needs, along with a person’s experience with trauma and if they have developed healthy coping mechanisms. 

Crisis and trauma can affect someone’s belief systems on a spiritual level. But what is spirituality? It’s a connection that transcends self, an inner-belief system that provides meaning to life. Loss of hope and fear of death are two of the key issues, along with anger directed at a higher being, and are important issues to address. Healthy spirit practices can decrease risky behaviors, expand social support, enhance coping skills, establish understanding of traumatic events, and activate physiological relaxation response through mediation and positive focus rather than isolation and depression. Trauma needs to be addressed through the mind, body, and soul for true recovery. Therapists, social workers, spirit leaders, and energy workers can assist with this process. In some native American cultures, three days after a traumatic event spirit leaders assist their people with a spiritual ceremony. I love this theory. 

Developing proper coping strategies on a soul level include: 

  1. Stable social support 
  2. Ability to express emotions therapeutically that past trauma may prevent
  3. Developing a creative outlet though art, yoga, nature

Developing healthy coping skills is imperative. Learning to tolerate distressing emotions and situations is key to being happy. Helpful techniques include:

  1. Practice mindful medication – practice being in the present moment. I do this when I am doing the dishes (one of the chores I rather dislike); however, I noticed if I pay attention to the way the water and dishes feel as I am cleaning the dishes, it gives me an awareness and makes the chore much easier. I also show appreciation by thanking my dishes for holding my food. I know it sounds silly, but it’s how I start my mindful practice each day. It’s also pretty cool.
  2. Self-monitor your emotional state – it’s important to notice when you start feeling bad and treat negative thoughts before cyclical patterns get out of control.
  3. Understand your spiritual needs and how to meet them.
  4. Understand your physical and emotional needs and how to meet them. 
  5. Understand the coping process and integrate that knowledge. 
  6. Use journals or autonomic writing – one of my favorite techniques. 
  7. Reestablish empowerment and reach closure.

Trauma can impair quality of life, affect a person’s brain development, and increase vulnerability, chronic disease, mental illness, and substance abuse. Issues can be addressed, but the only person who can really do the work is the person affected. 

As a community let’s work at healing together. 

For more information or to schedule a consult, contact Nurse Jen at 316.323.7754 or email itsnursejenRN@gmail.com. 

This information is not to be mistaken for medical advice. This is intended for educational purposes only and as a complement to an individual’s current health and wellness regimen.