Since 2014, the United States has recognized the month of June as National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 6% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lifetime. That number jumps to 11-20% for U.S. veterans who have served in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), 12% for the Gulf War, and 30% for the Vietnam War. It takes great courage to go to war for your country, but to live with the emotional scars that come after serving... The extent of their sacrifice is unfathomable.
Of course, PTSD doesn't just affect veterans. Because there are such little educational resources about it, most of us would not even realize if someone we knew was suffering from PTSD. That's why this article exists: to spread awareness about what such individuals endure and shed light on the nature of this condition. It is not meant to substitute medical advice on PTSD- the best perspective you can get is from a licensed medical professional.
That being said, everyone can learn the fundamentals of this condition to understand better how we can support those who struggle with it.
What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines PTSD as "an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the [traumatic] event that last for many weeks or months after the traumatic event."
According to the Mayo Clinic, some symptoms of PTSD include:
Intrusive, recurrent memories of flashbacks of the traumatic event
Nightmares about the traumatic event
Avoidant behavior towards reminders of the traumatic event
Negative thoughts about oneself
Negative thoughts about the world
A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Like other issues relating to mental health, PTSD may "look" different from person to person. Moreover, it is not meant to nor should it be used to diagnose PTSD.
What Causes PTSD?
Much is known about this difficult disorder, but there is also much that is not understood. Let's start with what is known.
PTSD is spurred by a traumatic event, which the CDC states was "marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury, or death."
PTSD is most commonly associated with exposure to combat and warzones, but it can also be caused by:
Physical or sexual assault
Witnessing traumatic events, even remotely
Death of a loved one
As with the symptoms above, events that can trigger PTSD are not limited to this list of examples, and it is only one piece of the puzzle.
One essential component of understanding this condition is how it affects the brain. To do so, we have to discuss the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Matt Hill of the University of Calgary has a great explanation that we'll also touch upon later when we talk about PTSD and cannabis. But below, we'll provide you with a summary:
As you undergo different experiences, your senses (sight, smell, touch, etc.) are taking in stimuli, a type of information that gets sent to the amygdala. The amygdala's job is to determine if that experience is safe or dangerous. But the amygdala can't do this on its own.
Helping the amygdala do its job is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is highly developed in humans and handles many complex processes, such as decision-making. When we encounter stimuli, the amygdala will "ask" the prefrontal cortex, "Hey, see this thing? Have we seen it before? Is it dangerous?"
If the prefrontal cortex responds with "Yes, we've seen this before, and it is dangerous," the amygdala activates a stress response (also known as the "fight or flight response") to help you deal with the threat.
In cases of PTSD, however, the amygdala suddenly has difficulty communicating with the prefrontal cortex. It's essentially left on its own.
And to "play it safe," it has to be overly vigilant, firing off stress responses even when there is no threat of danger.
Interestingly, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event gets PTSD. One of the biggest mysteries is why some people develop this condition and others don't.
PTSD and Veterans
The term "post-traumatic stress disorder" was first used in the 1970s to diagnose Vietnam veterans. In the past, PTSD was referred to as "shellshock," "combat neurosis," and "war nerves."
A person in a warzone doesn't even have to be directly involved with combat to develop PTSD. For example, they may have witnessed something traumatic or heard about something traumatic happening to someone else. What should also be known is that combat is not the only cause of PTSD among veterans.
Military sexual trauma (MST) is another leading cause of PTSD among veterans. It results from sexual harassment and sexual assault while serving in the military. This type of trauma can happen to both men and women.
Among veterans who use VA healthcare, about 23 in 100 women reported sexual assault in the military, and 55 out of 100 women and 38 out of 100 men have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the military.
Other non-combat-related causes of PTSD among veterans can include training accidents, survivor's guilt, or the death of another service member.
PTSD and Cannabis
To preface this section, we must state that our products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. We are merely presenting information about cannabis as it relates to PTSD.
According to a study referenced in an article by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a 150-person study conducted in December 2020 revealed that participants diagnosed with PTSD who consumed cannabis were 2.5 times more likely to no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after one year than those who did not consume cannabis.
Remember that this is a limited study of 150 participants and only considered those who consumed cannabis vs. those who didn't. The article does not mention if the participants were receiving treatment for PTSD, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Another interesting set of findings on cannabis and PTSD is how cannabinoids can affect the amygdala. You can watch the video below to learn more about this topic, but we'll give a quick summary too.
A research group in Chicago conducted various studies where participants were exposed to images that can promote a stress response for the amygdala. This included weapons, figures with scared expressions on their faces, car accidents, and blood. Before exposure, however, the participants were administered a moderate dose of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Their responses were monitored via a brain scanner.
So what happened? As mentioned earlier, when someone has PTSD, their amygdala is constantly going into "stress mode" because the communication with the prefrontal cortex is damaged. The study showed that this sporadic response was actually reduced when participants consumed THC.
Nonprofits Helping Veterans with PTSD
Much like other psychiatric disorders, there is no definitive cure for PTSD. However, with treatment, someone can experience significant improvements, and it is possible for a complete resolution of symptoms.
Veterans who need mental health treatment for conditions such as PTSD face many barriers, which can include:
Awareness of eligibility for services
Understanding how the VA is organized
Stigmas and misconceptions around mental health treatment
Fortunately, there are organizations devoted to helping veterans who otherwise couldn't get the treatment they need for PTSD.
Nonprofits That Help Veterans With PTSD
Hometown Hero's mission has always been to give back to veterans. Over the years, we've been fortunate enough to work with organizations to help us accomplish this.
The Disabled American Veterans Organization, for example, provides one-on-one assistance for veterans to help them obtain the benefits they rightfully deserve. They also offer free-of-charge transportation services for veterans needing rides to medical appointments.
Sacred Warrior Community is an organization that specializes in helping veterans and their family members who have faced mental health problems and trauma. The nonprofit takes a community-based approach to promote lifestyle changes while creating support networks among veterans.
These are just some examples of organizations we've worked with. We're thankful to join the ranks of those who've taken the initiative to reach out and give back.
PTSD is a serious medical condition affecting veterans, our hometown heroes. It can lead to other complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Despite this, there is hope. Treatment can significantly improve the lives of people affected by PTSD, and there are organizations helping veterans get past those barriers keeping them from getting the help they need.
There's much more to PTSD than we could ever cover in a blog post. But we hope you were able to learn something new and help shed the stigma of talking about this condition that affects many, from those with PTSD to their friends and family.
Until next time.
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