In the last years, medical marijuana has been increasingly used as treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) – in some states in the U.S., as in California, approximately 25% medical marijuana patients have their prescription for their PTSD. Israel's government also treats soldiers with PTSD with cannabis. We know from numerous reports from war-veterans and other PTSD patients that marijuana can give instant relief and can actually help in the long run to minimize symptoms of PTSD.
I had seen these transformations, people who had lost their will to live, coming back from their zombie states and radiating a new life force from their eyes.”
Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
In the last years, medical marijuana has been increasingly used as treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) – in some states in the U.S., as in California, approximately 25% medical marijuana patients have their prescription for their PTSD. Israel’s government also treats soldiers with PTSD with cannabis. We know from numerous reports from war-veterans and other PTSD patients that marijuana can give instant relief and can actually help in the long run to minimize symptoms of PTSD. We still don’t know exactly how marijuana helps these patients, but we have some clues. About a decade ago, physiologist Beat Lutz found that the endocannabinoids in our brain play an important role in the extinction of aversive memories.1 Inhaled or ingested (exogenous) cannabis might act on this system and help PTSD patients to overcome their traumas. A newer study with rats by the Israelian scientists Eti Ganon-Elazar and Irit Akirav2suggests that cannabinoids do not really extinguish aversive memories. Memories still seem to be there, but they do not cause such extreme reactions anymore; thus, marijuana probably helps patients to overcome their traumas without extinguishing their episodic memories of what happened.
The cognitive effects of a marijuana high
These findings on the neurological level are promising for the treatment of millions of traumatized people. In this essay, however, I want to explain other ways in which marijuana could be personally used or used in psychotherapy – not only to overcome traumas. I want to show here that a marijuana high and its cognitive effects could be used for many ways of positive personal transformations – and we have a lot of anecdotal evidence for this claim. Here is a report from a marijuana user who used marijuana to get away from a shallow lifestyle in a marriage that was almost wrecked:
(…) we’ve discovered that what we both really want is contentment with what we have rather than the perfectionism of accumulation and put-ons. Marijuana has landed us solidly into a groove of change; it’s broken down barriers between us, and probably saved our marriage and family. We have a heightened sense of what we’re all about as a couple, we’re better parents (…).3
Mindsight and Marijuana
How could the marijuana high help with personal transformation? I want to introduce a relatively new and groundbreaking approach in psychotherapy suggested by Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Medical School. In his book Mindsight. The New Science of Personal Transformation4 he combines Western psychoterapy and new findings from the neurosciences with Eastern meditation practices.
One of Siegel’s core concepts is integration as the basis for happiness. He identifies eight areas of integration, but for the sake of brevity, I will mention only three here: horizontal integration, vertical integration, and the integration of episodic memories. Let me illustrate these real quick. Stuart, one of Siegel’s patients (aged 93) came to him because he realized that he felt nothing when his wife got severely sick. It turned out that Stuart never allowed much feelings, because his parents had been emotionally cold with him. As a child, Stuart had probably mostly “switched of” the right hemisphere, which is of importance for holistic thinking, nonverbal communication and empathy. Instead, he used mainly his rational, logical, and verbal left hemisphere and worked as a lawyer. Siegel successfully used various methods to direct Stuarts awareness to processes in his right hemisphere, like nonverbal communication and imagery. He helped Stuart to heal by integrating his right hemisphere – that’s what Siegel calls horizontal integration.
Siegel’s patient Anne had “switched off” her feelings for her body as an eleven year old child because she had decided to never feel again after the severe shock when her mother died. Here, Siegel realized that she needed to vertically integrate the feelings for her body again and he used various physical trainings and awareness exercises to help her to do so – with much success.
Traumatized patients often completely forget the circumstances of their traumatic experience, like rape, abuse, physical violence, or a fatal loss. One of the most important techniques for Siegel’s method of “mindsight” is to let his patient meditate and to let them find a secure space in the here-and-now. If they feel stressed, he asks them to imagine being at their favorite place, maybe a beach or the house on an aunt in their childhood. In this state, he can actually lead them to less fearfully remember a so far supressed traumatic experience; which they need to better deal with their memories later. This is what Siegel calls the integration of episodic memories.
Siegel cites impressive studies to show that getting aware of emotional traumas and training ones awareness over a longer period of time can lead to a real physical transformation in the brain because of neuroplasticity – the technical term for the fact that throughout our lives, new synaptic connections and new neurons can be grown. Our brain is in a constant process of transformation.
Marijuana, Transformation, and Psychotherapy
In my book “High. Insights on Marijuana”5 I argued that marijuana can be used as a cognitive enhancer in numerous ways. I will now list some of them and comment how these could help patients – but also healthy marijuana users – to heal or to literally transform themselves.
One of the most important effects of marijuana seems to be the hyperfocus of attention. When high, we strongly focus on a taste, a tactile experience during sex, or on our inner stream of thought. It is obvious that this effect can help users to focus on the here-and-now. Indian sadhus have used cannabis derivates for hundreds of years for meditation and other purposes. Marijuana certainly can help beginners to get deeper in their meditation or to focus on episodic memories. The enhancement of episodic memory retrieval during a high is one of the main effects described in detail by myriads of marijuana users and could of course help them to become aware and integrate episodic memories. Furthermore, marijuana helps to vividly imagine various situations, which might be generally helpful during a guided meditation.
In brief, then, the high can be helpful for the process of meditation – which can generally be used with the mindsight method. The enhancement of episodic memory during a high can help in the process of the integration of episodic memories. Also, many used reported various enhancements of their intereoception – the perception of ones own body. This could also help patients to ‘get in touch’ with their bodies, which facilitates the process of vertical integration. Last but not least, marijuana seems to enhance many functions which are dominantly performed by the right hemisphere of the brain – episodic memories, imagery, empathic understanding, insights – so it could also help with horizontal integration.
Lester Grinspoon’s amazing collection of essays and reports from marijuana users (not abusers)6 show that many of them have successfully used marijuana for introspection, insights, a better empathic understanding, which often changed their lives and positively transformed them. Siegel’s approach shows us that psychotherapists should at least consider marijuana as an important tool to help millions of patients to overcome serious traumas, deep fears or depression based on previous processes of disintegration – and to facilitate the much desired positive personal transformation.
1Beat Lutz (2002), „The Endogenous Cannabinoid System Controls Extinction Of Aversive Memories“, Nature, August 1, 418(6897):530-4.
2Eti Ganon-Elazar and Irit Akirav (2011) “Cannabinoids Prevent the Development of Behavioral and Endocrine Alterations in a Rat Model of Intense Stress”,? Neuropsychopharmacology;|doi:10.1038/npp.2011.204?
3“E.Cleaves”: “We’re Not Bluffing Anymore”, in: Lester Grinspoon (Ed.), marijuana-uses.com, April 2013.
4Daniel J. Siegel (2010) Mindsight. The New Science of Personal Transformation Bantam; Reprint edition
5Sebastián Marincolo (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana, Dogear Publishing, Indiana.
6Lester Grinspoon (ed.), marijuana-uses.com, April 2013.