Science-Backed Therapies For PTSD You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops after you experience or witness a terrifying event. It’s most commonly talked about in the context of veterans returning from war (studies suggest that as high as 30% of veterans (1) will develop the condition) but PTSD can be triggered by any number of traumatic events, including car accidents, natural disasters, an assault, and even childbirth. The symptoms of PTSD vary, but some of the most common include flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares, and obsessive and uncontrollable thoughts.
Conventional medicine has long struggled to understand, prevent, and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. For one, it’s difficult to know who will develop PTSD from a traumatic event and who will not. In addition, there are only two FDA-approved medications for PTSD and they can have undesirable side effects.
Anyone that’s suffered a terrible incident deserves to have every resource available to them, which is why there’s a lot of research focusing on new and more effective PTSD treatments. The scientific and medical communities are working day and night to think outside the box and create new lines of therapy, like the ones below, that you may not have heard of before.
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1. Wakeful rest after the event
Ideally, a PTSD treatment would not actually treat PTSD but prevent it from developing in the first place. Research suggests that the answer to this may lie in the way the memory is filed by the brain, and a UCLA study (2) — that shows a period of “wakeful rest” following a traumatic event may reduce memory intrusions from PTSD later on — might hint at a way to make sure you file a memory correctly.
The study went like this: The researchers had participants look at disturbing images and then divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to rest and the other group was asked to perform a task that required them to remember numbers on a screen. The results showed that the participants who rested had fewer memory intrusions the following week. So what explains this? When we’re resting, a part of the brain called the hippocampus gets to work to process memories, sort them, and place them in context.
There’s still a lot more to learn about this, but it’s something I’ll be keeping an eye on. In fact, based on this study I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to rest after any negative life event — big or small — to give your brain a little space to process, instead of immediately trying to distract ourselves.
If PTSD does occur, an interesting new therapy making a lot of waves is EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that involves paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound while you purposefully remember the event. According to researchers, the small shifts that occur in the way you re-experience the memory allow it to be processed more appropriately. EMDR has been very effective in scientific studies; for example, a review study (3) showed that seven of 10 studies analyzed showed that EMDR therapy worked quicker and more effectively than cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is all the rage in the wellness world. A quick internet search will produce thousands of CBD products, including CBD-infused bath bombs, eye creams, chocolate bars, and so, so much more. I don’t think CBD is a miracle cure, nor do I think everyone will necessarily benefit from it, but the research on CBD for PTSD is compelling.
For example, a 2019 study (4) on 11 participants showed that routine psychiatric care plus oral CBD helped reduce symptoms in adults with PTSD, particularly in patients who experienced frequent nightmares. Another study on rodents (5) revealed that CBD can facilitate the eradication of aversive memories and block their reconsolidation, which is when memories that have been previously processed are recalled and actively consolidated again and again.
So how does this work? Likely through the endocannabinoid system, which is the larger regulatory system in the body that cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, interact with.
Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic chemical produced in certain types of mushrooms. It interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain and has shown promise for a wide range of health conditions, including cluster headaches, OCD, addiction, and of course, PTSD. In fact, a company in Jamaica, where psilocybin is legal, has already developed a nasal spray that delivers microdoses of the chemical with the hopes of treating PTSD and depression.
And first, this seem pretty “out there” but actually, research has shown (6) that psilocybin can facilitate fear extinction in animals and promote neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to undergo changes. Psychedelics have also been shown to decrease reactivity (7) in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is where the fear response originates. Oftentimes, amygdala hyperactivity is observed in patients with PTSD.
About 10 percent of us will experience PTSD in our lifetime, so these treatments are “thinking outside the box” at its best and represent newfound hope for a lot of people.
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- Reisman M. (2016). PTSD Treatment for Veterans: What's Working, What's New, and What's Next. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 41(10), 623–634.
- Hørlyck, L.D., Bisby, J.A., King, J.A. et al. Wakeful rest compared to vigilance reduces intrusive but not deliberate memory for traumatic videos. Sci Rep 9, 13403 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49634-8
- Shapiro F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente journal, 18(1), 71–77. https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/13-098
- Elms, L., Shannon, S., Hughes, S., & Lewis, N. (2019). Cannabidiol in the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 25(4), 392–397. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2018.0437
- Bitencourt, R. M., & Takahashi, R. N. (2018). Cannabidiol as a Therapeutic Alternative for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: From Bench Research to Confirmation in Human Trials. Frontiers in neuroscience, 12, 502. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00502
- Krediet, E., Bostoen, T., Breeksema, J., van Schagen, A., Passie, T., & Vermetten, E. (2020). Reviewing the Potential of Psychedelics for the Treatment of PTSD. The international journal of neuropsychopharmacology, 23(6), 385–400. https://doi.org/10.1093/ijnp/pyaa018
- Kraehenmann, R., Preller, K. H., Scheidegger, M., Pokorny, T., Bosch, O. G., Seifritz, E., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2015). Psilocybin-Induced Decrease in Amygdala Reactivity Correlates with Enhanced Positive Mood in Healthy Volunteers. Biological psychiatry, 78(8), 572–581.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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