Emotional Anesthesia?

Symptoms of PTSD can be devastating and treating individuals with PTSD can often be difficult. For example, getting a trauma survivor to discuss past traumatic events can sometimes feel impossible as just talking about these haunting stories can lead to complete and total dissociation and detachment.

The pre-frontal cortex goes off-line. Thus, you will have a client who’s body is in the room yet there mind will be somewhere far away; most likely stuck in the traumatic event of their past.  The limbic system, that reptilian brain of ours (“flight, fight and freeze”), reflexively responds to protect us from traumatic events, which may be too intense to fully experience or even talk about after the fact (i.e. the common reports of feeling like one is watching the traumatic event from outside themselves).

A study, under the auspices of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), involves the short-term, supervised use of MDMA, also known as ecstasy in an effort to allow an individual to process their past trauma without dissociating and disconnecting.

The idea behind the use of ecstasy is that the drugs ability to produce powerful euphoria would combat the brains instinct to dissociate and shutdown. A battle between the drug ecstasy, serotonin and the “feel-good” chemicals versus our primitive brain, cortisol and the fear response ensues! Who will win?

According to MAPS research, MDMA is allowing individuals to freely navigate their tortured histories and release the strangle hold it has on them. One study of 21 cases boasted an impressive 83% success rate and participants were symptom free for over a year.

Ecstasy is not the only narcotic receiving attention for its potential ability to treat symptoms of PTSD as more and more combat veterans express an interest in the practical applications of medical marijuana. Much like MDMA, the idea is that marijuana could counter the negative symptoms of PTSD and act as a kind of emotional anesthesia, allowing clients to move forward with therapy and life.

While researching some current articles about the attitude the VA has about medical marijuana, which is not positive, a quote by one combat veteran who uses marijuana to treat his PTSD is what stood out to me: “You get high, you go to sleep. You sleep, you don’t dream.” This quote is familiar to me as it echoes the desperate struggle for relief that accompanies addiction and trauma.

Essentially, all addiction is about dissociation, but what’s really troubling is that the traumatized limbic system, that primal brain, is also the area of the brain linked to addiction. Many of the traumatized individuals I’ve worked with have a fourth, hardwired response to stress and trauma: Fight, flight, freeze and get loaded… Dissociate! For many struggling with symptoms of unresolved trauma, chemical addiction becomes about controlled dissociation, survival and relief from the intolerable emotions within.

So while marijuana or MDMA may help someone detach from the negative emotions during trauma recovery, what happens when it stops working? The terror of increased tolerance paired with decreased efficacy of a substance is a common fact that leads so many addicts to push the limits. I know it led me to push mine.

A rarely discussed part of the history of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (as it will often welcome some unfriendly glares in a 12-step meeting), is that Bill suffered from severe depression, and after several years of sobriety he underwent medically controlled trials of LSD in the 1950’s. Initially, LSD was seen as a cure as it provided Bill spiritual enlightenment similar to that, which inspired the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Over time, Bill, a combat veteran himself, began to recognize the dangerous and familiar pull of this new substance, with all its euphoric and hallucinogenic properties it had.

What if instead of being used as spiritual stepping-stones or emotional anesthesia, people just decide they prefer looking through the lens of LSD (or Marijuana and MDMA)? Reality, after all, can be so hard to deal with; and while it’s only speculation, I imagine that like myself, Bill shared the fear that these chemicals were merely another deadly form of escapism versus a potential solution.