For many people, a traumatic experience or accident has an emotional impact that remains long after the event has passed. The name Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) denotes a psychiatric condition suffered by people who have experienced trauma. Even though PTSD does not affect combat veterans only, studies show that in the military, it has been on the rise.
The American Psychiatric Association reports that “PTSD can occur in all people, in people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and any age” (Source). The same organization says that this condition affects an estimated 3.5% of adults in the United States. It also forecasts that one in 11 adults will be diagnosed with the condition in their lifetime.
The military is one of the areas where people are likely to encounter trauma, potentially over long periods of time. We took some time to find out how common the condition is among veterans. We review both the causes the condition and its symptoms. We also look at available treatments and whether Cannabidiol (CBD) an extract of cannabis that is gaining popularity as a treatment could be part of the answer.
What is PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. In some instances, experience with trauma creates challenges that disappear over time. However, some people eventually go on to develop PTSD (Source).
When it comes to individuals who have served in the military, the U.S. Department of Veterans notes that the number of veterans suffering from PTSD depends on the service area. Examples of such differences can be seen in the three operations below.
- Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): An estimated 11% to 20% of veterans who served in these operations suffer from PTSD every year.
- Vietnam War: A study conducted in the later years of the 1980s (National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS)) concluded that around 15% of officers who took part in that war had been diagnosed with PTSD. The same study found that about 30 in every 100 veterans who participated will be diagnosed with the condition in their lifetime.
Gulf War (Desert Storm): In a given year, around 12% of officers who fought in the Gulf war are diagnosed with PTSD.
Causes of PTSD
PTSD is caused by the failure of the nervous system to return to its normal state following a traumatic experience. Among veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that the leading cause of the condition is the stress caused by the combat situation. The mental challenges emanate from what the officers do at war, the kind of enemy they face, and the area in which the battle takes place.
Another reality of working in the military that is often overlooked when dealing with the causes of PTSD veterans, is military sexual trauma (MST). MST refers to sexual assault or harassment that takes place during military service. Sexual harassment or assault can happen to both men and women and is not necessarily restricted to time of war as it can occur even during training and peacetime (Source).
Symptoms of PTSD
Identifying the symptoms of PTSD may be a challenge, especially among couples. (People in a relationship tend to have many instances where they misunderstand each other, which could lead to fighting and silence for days). This can make it challenging to differentiate between problems caused by the fact that one of the partners has PTSD and those that can be expected in any normal relationship.
Military.com, a 10 million-member website whose aim is to keep people with military affinity connected to each other, lists some of the most common PTSD symptoms to watch out for.
- Intrusive memories
- Re-occurring nightmares
- Intense distress or irritability
- Physical reaction (fast breathing, sweating, or nausea, when remembering or being reminded of the trauma)
- Feeling emotionally detached from others
- Emotional numbness
- Experiencing hopelessness about the future
- Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
- Arousal or anxiety symptoms
- Bouts of moodiness or anger
- Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- A sense of being “on alert” or “on guard” – Hypervigilance
- Developing a destructive addiction
- Suicidal thoughts (Source).
Effects of PTSD among Veterans
Despite PTSD being problematic on its own, it also contributes to other conditions. According to Matthew Tull, an associate professor, and director of anxiety disorders at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, studies show that a third of men with PTSD are likely to turn to substance abuse. This substance abuse can be a result of self-medicating which could lead to alcohol or drug addiction (Source)
Among Vietnam veterans, PTSD has also been associated with chronic pain. It is linked to clinical depression and heart disease among veterans. Increased rate of diabetes is also another risk factor for people with PTSD (Source).
PTSD does not only affect the person experiencing it but also other people the affected individual relates with. Writing about the effects of PTSD on the family, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports, “PTSD can make somebody hard to be with.” It adds, “Living with someone who is easily startled, has nightmares, and often avoids social situations can take a toll on the most caring family” (Source).
Like most people who have PTSD, veterans tend to re-experience traumatic events through flashbacks and nightmares. They also have a persistent negative mood and tend to have angry outbursts.
The primary treatment of PTSD is psychotherapy, but medication can also be used in some instances. A combination of treatments such as treating other problems related to traumatic experiences, learning ways to cope when symptoms arise, and teaching a person how to address their symptoms can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.
There are different psychotherapeutic methods that can be employed in the treatment of PTSD. The most common ones include Cognitive Therapy, Exposure Therapy, and Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Cognitive Therapy helps a person recognize thinking that is keeping them stuck. Exposure Therapy assists patients face memories and situations that frighten them to learn to cope with them. EMDR makes use of the combination of guided eye movements and exposure therapy (Source).
Traditionally, PTSD medication such as antidepressants has often targeted the symptoms of anxiety and depression. This medication can also assist with alleviating sleep problems. Anti-anxiety drugs help to reduce stress and other challenges associated with it.
Cannabis’s (CBD) Potential
Where medication is concerned, research has shown that Cannabidiol (CBD), which is found in Cannabis has the therapeutic potential to treat PTSD. It has been discovered that CBD can promote improvements in the symptoms of PTSD by altering the essential aspects of aversive memories. An article dealing with aversive memory can be accessed here.
Clinical trials with CBD show that patients reported a decrease in the symptoms of PTSD.
Some patients reported reduced nightmares, an improvement in the quality of their sleep, decreased anxiety as well as improved mode and focus. Although research has shown the potential that CBD has in treating PTSD, much still needs to be done to determine its safety and efficacy. Important factors such as effective doses, for how long the drug should be taken, and to what extent the outcomes can be expected to be generalized. Nevertheless, the few clinical trials that have been done support the use of CBDs in the treatment of PTSD.
PTSD Resources for Veterans
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: Has a website page dedicated to PTSD. Apart from offering information, access to free education and resources on PTSD, it also provides the option of speaking to an expert clinician.
Give an Hour: Is a national non-profit that serves specific groups, including military, veterans, and their families. It provides care and support to those that are experiencing emotional pain. Other resources on their website also offer a link to other emergency services such as the National Suicide Prevention Line and the Crisis Text Line.
Veterans Families United: Describes itself as “a not-for-profit organization that offers a comprehensive website and resource bank for identifying and helping veterans and families who may need assistance in understanding and coping with war-related illness.”
V.A. Mobile Apps for PTSD: This resource, published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information lists some useful applications for people who have PTSD.