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Post Traumatic Stress and Marijuana

answered 11:21 AM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
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Hi Jeannie:

I smoked pot nearly everyday for 10 years (I started smoking regularly when I was 18 and am now 28). To be a functional member of society, I only really ever smoked at night. I have always been very functional during the day (I am a lawyer) and would just light up when I got home or sometimes if I had a busy day just right before bed. It was always a very manageable addiction and I always felt extremely happy and lucky to have the life that I do. For the past ten years I would characterize myself and extraordinarily happy. Almost everything in my life had gone right. Great career success, many friends/popularity, incredible wife and strong relationships with friends and family.

About 7 weeks ago, I witnessed an accident where someone died and I tried to help as a first-responder without success. I thought I was fine and went back to smoking a couple days after the accident. For two weeks I was fairly 'normal' until one afternoon (maybe 4-5 weeks ago) smoking started causing severe anxiety that carried through to my mornings and days. I would have strange thoughts that something could be wrong with me, first physically, like rare bacterial infections, then mentally, like anxiety disorders or obsessive thoughts. After a couple days of smoking causing this anxiety, I quit smoking altogether basically 'cold turkey'. I was okay for a couple weeks although I had a lingering worry that would come about a few times a day. I tried one more time after these two weeks (so about 2-3 weeks ago) when I thought I was feeling better and it caused my anxiety to mushroom even further, to the point where I was focusing on it all the time for about a week. I calmed down a little over the last week or two but still have nearly constant anxiety that something is wrong with me, at this point mentally (the somatic worries have been overtaken by the mental ones...)

Do you have any insight as to what may be causing this/when I can expect to feel normal again/how I can speed that process up? My biggest worry at this point is that I'll never feel normal...


Jeannie Cameron Says...

Jeannie Cameron J. Cameron

Hello and thank you for such an interesting question. You stated you witnessed an accident at which you assisted; however the outcome was out of your hands. Most people who witness such traumatic events can experience what is termed Acute Stress Disorder, which usually begins to surface within one month of the incident. You stated that for 10 years you smoked and enjoyed your life and remained "functional", until you witnessed and became a part of a traumatic incident. The first criteria for Acute Stress Disorder are exposure to actual or threatened death, severe injury or rape by: experiencing or witnessing a trauma and then developing symptoms within 2 weeks.

Having severe anxiety, day after day is very distressing and can be intrusive on your self-care, family, and work. Being hyper-vigilant about your body and in constant fear of something happening to you, having poor concentration of the responsibilities before you, the inability to experience happiness or to imagine that it will not return to your life are all symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder.

You reported that you began smoking marijuana at 18, which is a time in human development when the Frontal Lobe of the brain is still forming. This process doesn't reach completion until around the age of 25. Research indicates that when adolescents begin smoking marijuana dramatic neuro-chemistry changes take place in the brain which can put the person at risk of cognitive and emotional challenges later in life.

Because Marijuana has psychoactive elements this will affect the individual's state of mind. There are 3 categories of Marijuana, Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Hybrids. Cannabis Sativa is the most popular and gives a cerebral buzz, resulting in an escalating type of high, which can stimulate brain activity and even hallucinations because it has higher THC levels. According to the research cited in "The British Colombia" examining the medical benefits of Marijuana, the Sativa is often characterized as energetic and euphoric working on a head buzz and acting like a stimulant, relieving depression, migraines, pain and nausea.

Out of the three categories there are many strains and if you're not in a state that has legalized Marijuana you don't have the luxury of purchasing it cafeteria style, ordering a strain that can sedate you instead of energizing you. It is most likely that you have been smoking Cannabis Sativa which has caused strong negative, emotional and cognitive surges.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not condoning Marijuana, however with the research that has been revealed and the unmistakable benefits of medicinal Marijuana it would be imprudent of me to not inform you of the positive qualities of Marijuana, as well as what is most likely exacerbating your anxieties.

As a professional it is also my job to refer you to see a professional who can guide you and will help sort out your emotions concerning what you witnessed and to ward off PTSD. In time the intensity of the feelings will subside and you will adjust to this situation. There is no time line that can be guaranteed, as everyone is different. Be easy on yourself and give yourself permission to be human. After all, life is a series of events that we have to adjust to. Some events will be ground-shaking and will cause tremendous loss and sadness. It is not what happens to us, as we will all go through suffering, it is how resilient we are and whether we can bounce back and rebound from it. Parking on problems for too long becomes pathological.

You'll want to walk through this life clean and sober because that is how we learn the coping skills to get through life on life's terms. There is no other way. If you choose to escape you will only put off growing emotionally until a later time. It is in your best interest, as a professional yourself, to learn your lessons and move on. You will be dealing with people who will want to escape from their own "life problems" and you will know from experience now that one cannot learn the lessons life teaches us unless we walk through it and get to the other side with our own resources. We will survive it; you will survive it, and be stronger for it.

Thank you,

Jeannie Cameron, MS, NCC, LMHC, LCAP

Naples, FL

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