The use of cannabis in the treatment of anxiety disorders was first described by ancient Indian medical literature, which said that cannabis helped its user to be “delivered from all worries and care” (Da Orta 1563).
But as modern-day researchers have discovered, the relationship between marijuana use and anxiety is a lot more complex. For example, while it is true that reduced anxiety is a commonly given reason for using cannabis, reports also show that frequent marijuana users tend to have higher levels of anxiety.
Using cannabis to self-medicate one’s anxiety may help to explain these conflicting findings. However, research suggests that marijuana — at different doses — can have opposite effects on anxiety as well.
What are Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders come in many different forms, all of which involve excessive worrying, uneasiness, apprehension and fear. Social anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all fall under the category of anxiety disorders.
While anxiety is a natural occurrence for all people, those who suffer from anxiety disorders experience severe impairment from their worries. It is estimated that approximately 18% of Americans and 14% of Europeans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
How Can Marijuana Help?
Studies show that the endocannabinoid system – the body’s natural cannabinoid system – plays a major role in regulating anxiety. Cannabinoid receptors – the binding sites of cannabinoids – are highly concentrated in certain parts of the brain that are responsible for anxiety, including the amygdala and hypothalamus.
Interestingly, studies show that patients experience higher levels of anxiety when cannabinoid receptors are blocked by drugs such as rimonabant. Likewise, regular cannabis users report that marijuana helps to reduce their anxiety levels.
Research has also linked the endocannabinoid system to the extinction of bad memories – supporting its potential role in treating post-traumatic stress disorder – as well as the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis), which is believed to improve anxiety levels.
On the other hand, paranoia and anxiety attacks are some of most commonly reported side-effects of marijuana use, especially in new and infrequent users. Indeed, studies have revealed a complex link between cannabinoids and anxiety, suggesting that marijuana’s effect on anxiety depends on both the dosage taken as well as the type of cannabinoids that are present.
THC’s Effect On Anxiety
Studies conducted on both animals and humans have revealed a surprising effect of THC on anxiety. That is, THC seems to have opposite effects on anxiety levels depending on the dosage, with THC acting to decrease anxiety at lower doses yet increasing anxiety at higher doses.
On the other hand, experts believe that studies involving pure THC fail to accurately portray the effects of marijuana on anxiety, since cannabis contains over 60 different cannabinoid compounds.
Most notably, marijuana contains a compound called cannabidiol (CBD), which has also drawn significant interest as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders.
CBD’s Effect On Anxiety
While THC acts primarily on the CB1 receptors that are found in high concentrations throughout the brain, CBD seems to have little to no effect on CB1 receptors. Still, studies have found CBD to play a major role in regulating anxiety and have even suggested that it may be a more effective treatment than THC for anxiety disorders.
The first study to document CBD’s effect on anxiety was published in 1982. The study found that CBD could block the anxiety provoked by THC among 8 healthy test subjects, implying that CBD-rich marijuana strains may be a better option for relieving anxiety.
Research on CBD’s anti-anxiety effects has picked up again in recent years, with studies confirming its ability to reduce anxiety levels in both healthy and sick individuals.
The first study to investigate its therapeutic role in patients with anxiety disorders was published in 2011 by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. The study involved giving a 400mg dose of CBD to 10 patients diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, who then underwent a brain scan. The results showed that CBD – compared to placebo – was able to significantly decrease subjective anxiety measures as well as activity in certain parts of the brain normally associated with anxiety.
Another study published by the same group of researchers later in 2011 involved 24 patients with social anxiety disorder, who were given a 600 mg dose of CBD before undergoing a simulated public speaking test (meant to induce anxiety). The results showed that a single dose of CBD taken 90 minutes before the public speaking simulation could reduce anxiety as well as cognitive impairment and discomfort during speech performance.
What This Means For Your Health
The results of numerous studies seem to suggest that certain compounds in marijuana could have an anti-anxiety effect, both in healthy individuals and sufferers of anxiety disorders. On the other hand, clinical research is sparse, meaning that medical marijuana is unlikely to be recommended by health practitioners for the treatment of anxiety.
Furthermore, other studies have observed higher levels of anxiety and lower quality of life scores among frequent cannabis users, suggesting that marijuana may not be all that effective in treating anxiety disorders and might even worsen the condition. On the other hand, these results might be explained by a tendency for patients with more severe symptoms of anxiety to use cannabis on a regular basis.
Overall, it is hard to say for certain whether marijuana is indeed useful for anxiety disorders when so little clinical research has been conducted so far.