Marijuana's ability to impair short-term memory could both help and hinder psychotherapy for PTSD.

The effects of marijuana on short-term memory can both help and hinder psychotherapy for PTSD. Image Source: Flickr user eggrole.

If you suffer from PTSD, it may feel like you are stuck in a terrible memory. Your own mind becomes your enemy, and when you’re faced with reliving your trauma on a daily basis, the idea of decreasing your ability to recall events may sound like a form of relief. Learning that marijuana use can impair your short-term memory may make it seem like a viable treatment option for those suffering from PTSD, and several states specifically list PTSD as a qualifying condition for access to medical marijuana. But while cannabis does show great potential to treat trauma, it is important to understand the complex ways that marijuana interacts with memory, making it both a potential hindrance and aid in the treatment of PTSD.

Marijuana and the Impairment of Short-term Memory

Although marijuana has many medical benefits, there are also some drawbacks. Namely, marijuana use has been shown to impede the formation of short-term memories as well as their consolidation into long-term memory without affecting long-term memory recall. These effects have caused some therapists to doubt the usefulness of marijuana therapy in treating psychological issues such as PTSD and anxiety. After all, the success of psychotherapy involves breaking old associations with memories and triggers that may exacerbate PTSD and forming new associations that are less traumatic and easier to handle—a process that depends heavily on your ability to form short-term memories and store them as long-term memories. And since marijuana negatively affects your ability to encode and store memories, you may not be able to form new ways of thinking about your problems or develop new habits to cope with your PTSD while under the influence of marijuana.

The good news is that marijuana only seems to negatively affect memory while you are actively using it. Once you stop, psychotherapy may become an effective tool against PTSD again.

Marijuana and the Potential for “Safety Learning”

Despite some researchers and therapists thinking that marijuana’s disruption of short-term memories will stall psychotherapy, others still believe marijuana may be used to enhance psychotherapy. This is because THC can stimulate the hippocampus in a way that promotes what is known as “safety learning.” Safety learning is the retraining of the brain to assess potential dangers more realistically and is usually done through controlled exposure to a situation, object, or thought that would trigger PTSD symptoms. THC—along with other substances such as d-Cycloserine and Methylene Blue—has been shown to stimulate the area of the hippocampus that is active when you learn whether something is safe or dangerous. In theory, marijuana can help you forget to be afraid of your current triggers. Substances that make safety learning easier and faster are of particular interest in PTSD psychotherapy because this form of psychotherapy is generally a slow treatment that can take up to two years of therapy to create lasting effects.

The question that researchers and therapists need to ask when considering whether marijuana would be a useful component in PTSD therapy is whether the short-term memory impairment will counteract the potentially positive effects of increased safety learning and  whether short-term safety learning can be stored in long-term memory while a patient is using marijuana. This will not become clear without further research has been completed, but recent studies involving marijuana and PTSD have been approved by the DEA and are underway.

The Benefit of Interrupting Acute Symptoms

Like many psychological issues, PTSD can take on many different forms, and each individual may experience it slightly differently. Some people will experience increased agitation, violence, and anger while others will have panic and anxiety, difficulty sleeping, recurring nightmares, and depression. These symptoms can interfere with your everyday life and make it difficult for you to seek treatment, but in some cases, marijuana may help relieve some of these acute symptoms long enough to arrange the therapy needed to gain control of your PTSD.

A recent study found that 34 out of 47 patients who had treatment-resistant PTSD related nightmares responded well to treatment with nabilone, a cannabinoid found in marijuana. But some users actually began dreaming more than they did before using marijuana, which could hurt their treatment if they experienced more trauma-related nightmares. Other studies found marijuana may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and achieve more restorative deep sleep. However, in some cases, the positive effects of marijuana on sleep are reduced over time, and you may find it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep if you use marijuana regularly. Similarly, marijuana may help reduce depression, which many PTSD sufferers experience, but only in small, controlled doses of the correct strain. The bottom-line is, treating the symptoms of PTSD with marijuana can be helpful, but it is important to discuss your marijuana use with a professional who can help you create a personalized plan, give you advice on dosage and strain, and keep you fully informed on signs that may indicate your marijuana use should be stopped or reduced.

PTSD turns your own memories against you, and it is understandable to want to try a variety of treatments in order to find the best one for you. It seems marijuana can improve PTSD symptoms in many ways, but it is also important to realize that certain aspects of cannabis usage could hinder your healing process. For that reason, always disclose any recreational or medicinal use of marijuana to your mental health professional, and if you want to include marijuana in your treatment plan, opt for controlled doses under the supervision of a trained therapist in order to stay safe and reap the most benefits.