Cannabis and Anxiety: Worst and Best Scenarios

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Cannabis has anti-anxiolytic properties. Scientists understand the mechanism of action that makes cannabis work on anxiety. And, people have used cannabis to self-medicate their anxiety for centuries. So, what more can be said?

Let’s start with an understanding of anxiety.

We’re not talking run of the mill nervousness when we talk about “anxiety.” Rather, anxiety is a psychological disorder. According to Anxiety.org, “Anxiety disorders reflect disorders that share a general feature of excessive fear (i.e., emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e., anticipation of future threat) and demonstrate behavioral and functional disturbances as a result.”

Anxiety takes a many forms from even a mild case of the common General Anxiety Disorder to a severely incapacitating Agoraphobia. In all cases, the symptoms range from light to heavy. Symptoms include:

  • Constant and difficult-to-control worry
  • Worry disproportionate to the actual risk
  • Physical and emotional restlessness
  • General fatigue
  • Impaired concentration
  • Irritability and unstable moods
  • Increased muscle aches and soreness
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Nausea and diarrhea
  • And, more

Now, everyone feels anxiety at one time or another. It’s a natural psycho-physical reaction to certain situations. You are expected to worry about lions, tigers, and bears. But, “Anxiety disorders represent states when fear or anxiety becomes severe or extreme, to the extent that it causes an individual significant distress or impairs their ability to function in important facets of life such as work, school, or relationships.”

Where does anxiety come from?

Anxiety may reveal underlying health problems like diabetes, heart disease, thyroid, and respiratory disorders. It can also be a sign of withdrawal from drugs, alcohol, and anti-anxiety medications.

Anxiety victims often are predisposed genetically to anxiety symptoms. Other triggers include the following according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Trauma: A incident of abuse or trauma in childhood or adulthood can trigger anxiety. Childhood sexual abuse or PTSD are examples of trauma-induced anxiety.
  • Illness: Serious illness will cause worry.
  • Events: The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, serious financial worries can cause anxiety.
  • Psychology: Other mental disorders like depression often contribute to or pair with anxiety.
  • Drugs: Use and misuse of drugs or alcohol can increase or exacerbate anxiety.

Because anxiety has a complex relationship with other conditions and with symptoms that correlate to other conditions, diagnosis and care are difficult.

How do doctor’s treat anxiety?

Pharmaceutical regimens include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that block the reabsorption or reuptake of serotonin. This leaves more serotonin to improve mood. Common side effects are insomnia, sexual dysfunction, and weight gain.
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine by inhibiting their reabsorption into cells in the brain. Side effects include headaches, insomnia, stomach upset, sexual dysfunction, and weight gain.
  • Benzodiazepines treat short-term situational anxiety and as an add-on treatment. They do not treat PTSD. But, they do promote relaxation and reduce muscular tension and other physical symptoms of anxiety.
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants are preferred to benzodiazepines and their addictive properties. Still, they do not treat Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and cause side effects like blurry vision, constipation, dry mouth, orthostatic hypotension, and urinary retention.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is quite clear on the risks attached to these standard pharmaceutical responses. The Association and other resources also suggest the benefits of counseling, meditation, exercise, and yoga.

What are the alternative approaches?

Victims are encouraged to make lifestyle changes even if they are on medications:

  • Reduce alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine intake.
  • Pursue a nutritious and balanced diet.
  • Seek full-body massage.
  • Practice deep-breathing and meditation breathing techniques.
  • Use Asian medical practices like acupuncture and Tai Chi.
  • Try natural supplements like Vitamin B12, chamomile tea, Inositol, Valerian, Passion Flower, L-theanine. These supplements can create metabolic problems, so you should check with your doctor.

So, what’s the problem with cannabis?

Cannabis will offer an escape from daily problems. It offers distraction, and for some anxiety victims, that may be enough. A toke a day can keep the doctor away!

However, it also presents a complex solution.

The worst case: For some victims using certain cannabis strains, cannabis can be a nightmare scenario.

Use of high-level THC cannabis can produce psychotic reactions including acute anxiety and paranoia. Chronic use has been linked with incidents of schizophrenia.

Some have argued that predisposition to such psychological conditions drives the individual to cannabis. Others say cannabis is the driver. In either case, heavy use of high THC doses presents a problem. Considering that growers are chasing the development of high THC content, you have a worst-case scenario.

The best case: It’s also true that cannabis users report relief from strains with lower THC content and a more positive ratio with CBD. The THC works on the Endocannabinoid System’s neurotransmitters CB1 and CB2 to alter or reduce signals to the brain. In doing so, the mechanism will restore or stabilize the user’s neurology and anxiety.

More useful is the CBD. CBD has properties that relax and sedate. It influences the reabsorption of anandamide to keep mood balanced. And, CBD-dense cannabis derivatives, especially oils, are in heavy demand following small research studies supporting the positive influence of CBD on anxiety.

National Public Radio has reported on the initiation of new and larger studies that should prove enlightening:

  • The National Institutes of Health will fund a clinical trial to test if CBD helps people with PTSD who also have moderate or severe alcohol use disorder.
  • The Addiction Institute at the Mount Sinai School is in a Phase 1 clinical trial whether CBD might help prevent relapse in opioid abusers by reducing craving for the drug.

A 2014 study said, “Cannabidiol (CBD) is a constituent non-psychotomimetic of Cannabis sativa with great psychiatric potential, including uses as an antidepressant-like and anxiolytic-like compound.”

A 2012 study asserted, “CBD was shown to reduce anxiety in patients with social anxiety disorder.”

A 2011 study produce results to suggest, “CBD reduces anxiety in SAD and that this is related to its effects on activity in limbic and paralimbic brain areas.”

And, more research follows the same paths leading to supporting results.

Cannabis and Anxiety: your takeaway

Cannabis is not always the solution in treating personal anxiety. In fact, it may be a bad choice for some.

However, science continues to demonstrate cannabis has anti-anxiolytic properties that explain why people have self-medicated for anxiety for millennia. Those aware of their anxiety disorder in detail or those suffering SAD and other anxious feelings do benefit from non-addictive cannabis therapy.

And, if you have just had a bad day, an occasional hit shouldn’t hurt!