Table of Contents
Trauma that Leads to PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can develop after a person experiences a severely frightening event. Estimates from the National Center for PTSD suggest that roughly fifteen million adults experience PTSD each year and that 6% of the population will likely experience PTSD in their lives.1 Recent research has investigated the effects of MDMA for PTSD and how this treatment may aid those suffering from this disorder.
The traumas that can lead to PTSD are far-ranging, and what triggers PTSD for one person may not prompt it for others. When someone experiences trauma, it means they’ve experienced a profoundly disturbing and distressing event. Traumas are events that happen to you and often prompt feelings of powerlessness and extreme fear. If you have experienced trauma, remember that the event was not your fault and was likely outside your control.
Types of Trauma
While trauma can take any form, several types of trauma are well-known contributors to PTSD.
- War, combat, torture, and conflict
- Physical or sexual assault
- Childbirth struggles (e.g., miscarriage)
- Serious accidents and injuries (e.g., car accidents)
- Health issues that require admittance to a hospital or intensive care
- Witnessing traumatic events where someone gets hurt
Put simply, post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that sometimes develops after experiencing deeply scary, shocking, or life-threatening events. It involves a range of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms that occur days, months, and sometimes years after the initial trauma. Moreover, PTSD and addiction often co-occur when people attempt to find relief by self-medicating.
Some individuals experience PTSD symptoms consistently, while others only feel symptoms in response to triggering events. Some people even go years between experiencing symptoms.
Researchers theorize that PTSD may be an overgrown evolutionary trait. When we encounter a terrifying experience, our brain sends our body into fight or flight mode by releasing a series of hormones meant to prepare us for survival.
PTSD should not be confused with acute stress disorder. PTSD reflects the long-term impact of trauma, while acute stress disorder refers to the body’s immediate trauma response.
What Causes PTSD?
Researchers are still working to define precisely how PTSD develops and why it impacts some people and not others. For instance, the National Center for PTSD reports that eight out of one hundred women will develop PTSD in their lives, compared to four out of one hundred men.1 However, we have uncovered several factors that influence the likelihood that someone will develop PTSD after a trauma.
For people with PTSD, the number of stress hormones involved in the fight or flight reaction during the traumatic event tends to stay chronically elevated, as though the brain believes it is still fighting for survival. This high level of adrenaline and stress hormones may contribute to the symptoms of hyperarousal that accompany PTSD.
Another theory is that PTSD is a maladaptive evolutionary characteristic or instinctive mechanism that “protects” us by replaying the traumatic event on a loop to prepare us for survival. Research shows that people with PTSD undergo significant structural changes in their brains, mainly in their memory and emotion center – the hippocampus. According to brain scans, people with PTSD have smaller hippocampi, contributing to emotional numbness, uncontrollable fear and anxiety, flashbacks, and memory issues.2
Risk factors for Developing PTSD
- Having felt profound horror, powerlessness, and extreme fear during the event
- Seeing another person get hurt or witnessing a dead body
- A history of childhood trauma, mental illness, or substance abuse
- Living in a high-stress environment
- Having little to no social support after the event
- Experiencing increased overwhelm after the trauma due to loss of a loved one, issues at work or home, and pain or an injury
The factors that seem to combat PTSD and improve resilience involve strong coping skills and key characteristics of hope, optimism, and self-efficacy.3
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms often occur within three months of the event but can potentially take years to arise. PTSD symptoms can take on both physical and behavioral forms and may happen consistently, be triggered by specific settings, or come and go over the years.
Main Categories of PTSD
- Re-experiencing symptoms
- Extremely realistic flashbacks, the feeling of reliving the trauma on a loop, including physical symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, sweat, fast breathing)
- Frightening thoughts
- Avoidance symptoms
- Discontinuing behaviors, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma
- Avoiding events, objects, or places that remind you of the traumatic event
- Mood or behavior disturbances
- Reduced pleasure or interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Distorted memory of the event that centers feeling of guilt and blame
- Pessimistic thoughts about the world and oneself
- Difficulty remembering core aspects of the even
- Hyperarousal symptoms
- Having angry or violent outbursts
- Insomnia, difficulty sleeping
- Feeling perpetually tense or “on edge”
- Being easily startled
To be diagnosed with PTSD, someone must have encountered at least one re-experiencing symptom, one avoidance symptom, two hyperarousal symptoms, and two mood or behavior symptoms that interfere with work or relationships for a month at minimum.
Many of these symptoms can prompt someone to isolate themselves from essential support systems and self-medicate with licit and illicit substances, contributing to higher addiction rates.
If you or a loved one are working through trauma and addiction, remember – you do not have to go through it alone.
For those struggling with trauma, PTSD treatment can be life-changing. There are many treatment methods available, with more in development each day. If one therapy doesn’t work for you – don’t give up. It might just take time to find the one that is right for you.
Psychotherapy, otherwise known as “talk therapy,” typically runs for six to twelve weeks and encompasses many other therapies, including exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring therapy.
Psychotherapy provides a safe place for individuals to explore the traumatic event and the thoughts and feelings it prompts. From there, individuals can reinterpret the events from a more empowering stance that allows them to thrive, rather than remaining stuck in that moment of emotional trauma.
Exposure therapy involves talking about the psychological trauma until it no longer prompts fear or stress reactions. By talking about the memories over and over again, individuals with PTSD can take control of their memories and replace feelings of helplessness with empowerment and resilience.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT takes the form of talk therapy and focuses on helping people identify dysfunctional thinking, so they can develop more effective thoughts and behaviors. CBT is particularly helpful for unraveling psychological and emotional trauma by pulling back the curtain so people can see how events impacted their thought processes.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR involves talk therapy, where the person with PTSD focuses on a specific hand movement or sound as they discuss their trauma. Splitting their focus helps relieve some of the weightiness associated with the memory, allowing the individual to process the trauma more easily.
Trauma-Informed Care (TIC)
Trauma-informed care is a philosophy that encourages healthcare providers to act under the assumption that people in their care are more likely than not to have experienced trauma. Whether emotional or psychological trauma, this approach elevates the level of care so it is more specific and impactful to the individual’s distinct needs and PTSD treatment plan.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
TMS targets mood regulation through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation. It involves placing an insulated coil over the scalp and transmitting brief, painless, and harmless magnetic pulses into the brain. TMS has been used to successfully relieve depressive symptoms for people with major depressive disorder and PTSD.
MDMA Assisted Therapy
MDMA for PTSD has recently demonstrated huge potential in the worlds of trauma and addiction, PTSD treatment, and acute stress disorder. Up and coming MDMA for PTSD research suggests that just two to three MDMA therapy sessions in combination with other therapies may provide one of the most effective pathways to PTSD relief to date.
What is MDMA?
MDMA Assisted Therapy
MDMA, also known as methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is perhaps most commonly known by its street names: Molly, Ecstasy, X, E, XTC, Beans, Adams, and Vitamin E.
MDMA is a synthetic psychoactive chemical that acts as a stimulant and psychedelic. MDMA is a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substance Act due to its recreational nature and potential for abuse. However, this classification may soon change.
Researchers exploring the potential of MDMA for PTSD have found incredibly promising results, especially considering that roughly two-thirds of people see little to no change in PTSD symptoms from attending therapy. These results are so exciting, that the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) expects the U.S. FDA to approve MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as soon as 2023.4
How does MDMA Help PTSD?
- Trust and Safety
- Empathy and love
- Increased self-awareness
- More energy
- Decreased anxiety
- Sensory pleasure
- An ability to open up about emotions without fear or constraint
- Differences in how you experience space and time
Studies on MDMA for PTSD
A new phase III clinical trial involving ninety-one patients published this year found that 67% of the individuals treated for MDMA for PTSD could no longer qualify for PTSD diagnosis after the trial. Even more exciting, 88% of subjects experienced clinically significant improvement in PTSD symptoms.5
MDMA therapy occurs in two to three sessions over twelve weeks. However, MDMA therapy is not meant to be used alone. With MDMA for PTSD, participants must combine their sessions with extensive psychotherapy to use the MDMA effects to move through and grow beyond their trauma.
The MDMA drug used in sessions comes in the form of pills or tablets. MDMA for PTSD is a pure, synthetic psychoactive chemical and is not the same as street MDMA, which can contain surprising mixtures. Approximately 125g is the MDMA dosage currently employed in trial settings. This MDMA dosage takes about forty-five minutes before effects begin and can last for up to eight hours, giving ample time for therapeutic work.