Cannabis & Anxiety: Making Some Sense of the Information

Anxiety disorders, in some form or another, are now the most prevalent mental health disorders in the United States. While the limited research potential has prevented much information from being definitively proven, there is growing evidence to suggest various components of Cannabis could provide relief from certain anxiety disorders.

Let’s start by getting a better understanding of what exactly an anxiety disorder is. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety is in reference to anticipation of a future concern and is associated with muscle tension and avoidance behavior. One might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder if the anxiety is out of proportion to the situation at hand or age inappropriate— or if it hinders one’s ability to function normally. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 31% of adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. This includes panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, specific phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and separation anxiety disorders.

So, where does Cannabis fit in?

Humans have used Cannabis specifically for its relaxing effects for at least hundreds, probably thousands of years. What we’ve been missing, largely due to the most restrictive research environment known to science, is the evidence to support the idea that Cannabis can be an effective component in a treatment plan for managing anxiety.

And with 65% of Americans taking prescription medications on a daily basis, 43% of which are mood altering according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey; the burden of traditional treatment plans has proven more than costly to our society. According to the Institute for Healthcare Informatics, Americans spent $374 billion filling 4.3 billion prescriptions in 2014. That year alone, of the over 43,000 reported overdose deaths,18,893 people were reported to have died from prescription pharmaceuticals—specifically analgesics.

Cannabis, and its naturally developed components, has never been known—in all of recorded history—to have caused a fatality. It’s non-habit forming. While some research does point to a potential for dependence, there is no evidence to support that this is a physiological dependence at all similar to even something like caffeine. And it produces phyto-cannabinoids which are nearly identical to endogenous cannabinoids that every mammal produces, which are vital to the functionality of every bodily system.

What is the current research telling us?

As clinical trials are still very limited, some observational evidence suggests that while THC may help relieve symptoms of anxiety disorders in some, it can exacerbate the symptoms in others. An article published from the Harvard Medical School reflected on findings that on average 25% of those who consumed Cannabis reported intense anxiety and panic attacks. The most susceptible to these symptoms were those who had never consumed Cannabis before. They also mention that at lower doses THC can be sedating, while at higher doses it can induce anxiety (although this is still observational). We know just enough to know how much we don’t know about THC.

Another cannabinoid that’s been gaining more interest in recent years is CBD, or cannabidiol. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s another abundant cannabinoid in certain varietals of Cannabis that doesn’t produce a psychoactive effect. Interestingly however, there has been evidence to show that because of its anti-anxiety properties, CBD could potentially be used to treat certain mental health disorders.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology found that participants suffering from social anxiety disorders who were asked to publicly speak reported significantly less levels of anxiety when given CBD. None of the participants knew if they were getting CBD or the placebo prior to speaking, highlighting the potential for CBD as an anti-anxiety treatment option. There is also a study being done right now to see if CBD can help treat people with PTSD who also have alcohol use disorders. And yet another study, in Phase 2 of a clinical trial, is examining whether CBD can help prevent relapses in opioid abusers. This is being led by Yasmin Hurd at the Addiction Institute in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

So at this point, the most abundant information is personal experience and individual education, which makes it incredibly difficult for someone to approach a treatment plan with any level of confidence. However, there is major promise in what Cannabis can provide, despite some observational evidence to the contrary. Stay vigilant. Stay inquisitive. Be open to new information and the process of discovering it for yourself. If you’re suffering from anxiety, speak with your doctor. And if you live in a place with a less archaic mentality and Cannabis is available; speak with a professional about the potential to supplement it into your treatment plan. Unlike pharmaceuticals, consuming Cannabis can and should be personalized— it is not a “one size fits all” option.

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