People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been found to be at risk for developing a number of other mental health problems, including depression, other anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders, such as excessive marijuana use.
One large study of more than 5,000 people across the United States found that the experience of PTSD at some point in a person's lifetime was associated with an elevated risk for also using marijuana. Specifically, of those who had PTSD at some point in their lifetime, 65% also had used marijuana at some point in their lifetime (compared to only 41% of people without PTSD) and 14% had used it in the past year (compared to 9% of people without PTSD).
This study also found that the connection between PTSD and marijuana use was not due to the experience of other mental health problems or greater substance use in general among the people with PTSD. This means that there may be a specific connection between PTSD and the use of marijuana.
Why PTSD and Marijuana Use Often Co-Occur
One of the most popular theories with regard to why people PTSD are more likely to use substances (such as marijuana) is the self-medication theory. According to this theory, people with PTSD may find it difficult to cope with and tolerate the intense and unpleasant symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts and memories, sleep problems, hyperarousal, anger, and nightmares. As a result, people with PTSD may seek out ways to "self-medicate" their symptoms.
Substances may be one way to get quick relief from PTSD symptoms; however, while substances may help people initially escape PTSD symptoms, substances don't effectively address the root of the problem and the PTSD symptoms generally come back and sometimes come back stronger. In addition, the frequent use of substances can cause other mental or physical health problems or interfere with certain aspects of a person's life.
When it comes to marijuana, it seems like this self-medication theory may be correct. For example, it has been found that veterans with PTSD who also use marijuana say that marijuana is specifically used to reduce their PTSD symptoms, particularly the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD. In addition, studies have also found that PTSD symptoms are associated with the use of marijuana to cope with unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety and sadness. Another study showed that difficulties tolerating unpleasant emotions contributed to the use of marijuana among people who were experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
Managing PTSD Symptoms in a Healthy Way
Marijuana use (or any other substance) is going to only bring about a temporary reduction of PTSD symptoms. The substances are not going to have a lasting effect on PTSD symptoms, and in some cases, they may even make them worse. In addition, the use of substances can lead to other problems (for example, loss of job, relationship difficulties, mental health problems). Therefore, if you are using substances as a way of coping with your PTSD symptoms, it is important to learn other healthy ways of managing your emotions. In doing so, there may be less of a need to use substances as a way of coping.
There are a number of healthy coping strategies that you can use to better regulate your emotions, as well as manage your PTSD symptoms. In addition, there are treatments that have been specifically developed for people with PTSD who also struggle with substance use. Finally, even if you cannot find someone in your area who provides one of these specialized treatments for PTSD and substance use, taking part in any established PTSD treatment may reduce your symptoms so that you feel less of a need to rely on substances to manage your symptoms. If you are looking for PTSD treatment, there are a number of websites that can help you find PTSD treatment providers in your area.
Bonn-Miller, M.O., Vujanovic, A.A., Feldner, M.T., Bernstein, A., & Zvolensky, M.J. (2007). Posttraumatic stress symptom severity predicts marijuana use coping motives among traumatic event exposed marijuana users. Journal of Traumatic STress, 20, 577-586.
Cougle, J.R., Bonn-Miller, M.O., Vunanovic, A.A., Zvolensky, M.J., & Hawkins, K.A. (2011). Posttraumatic stress disroder and cannabis use in a nationally representative sample. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 25, 554-558.
Potter, C.M., Vujanovic, A.A., Marshall-Berenz, E.C., Bernstein, A., & Bonn-Miller, M.O. (2011). Posttraumatic stress and marijuana use coping motives: The mediating role of distress tolerance. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25, 437-443.