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“Weed Helps My Anxiety”

Research on Cannabis Suggests A More Complicated Effect

THE SKINNY: You may have heard that cannabis – commonly called weed or marijuana – can alleviate anxiety. While this may be true in the short term for some, it has negative effects on many and is not a long-term solution for anyone. Ultimately, no drug should be used to treat anxiety without a medical professional’s supervision.

Want to learn more? Read on. 

We’ve all felt anxious before. It’s that feeling of fear, dread and uneasiness. We might feel it before a big test or presentation. Maybe it creeps up when we have to board an airplane or make a big decision. Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. But, for the one in five people with anxiety disorders in the United States, this feeling festers to the point that it becomes unmanageable and sometimes even constant. 

If your anxiety feels overwhelming, you aren’t alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. but less than half of those suffering from them receive professional treatment, such as talk therapy and prescription medication. This is largely due to stigma and cost barriers.

Those with untreated anxiety are left searching for alternative ways to cope, and cannabis – often referred to as weed or marijuana – has become one of the most common self-prescribed remedies. 

Approximately half of youth who use cannabis daily have an anxiety disorder. (source)

“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” said Emma Wilson, a PreventEd Prevention Educator. “Which came first: the anxiety or the cannabis use?”

Overall, it seems that whether or not cannabis subdues anxiety depends on what type you use and how you use it. But, across the medical community, there is consensus that it should not be used in place of talk therapy and, if used, it should always be under a doctor’s supervision.

Digging into the Weeds: What the Research Says

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are two compounds found in the cannabis plant. Both interact with the endocannabinoid system in our brain, which is where we process and decide how to respond to anxiety, fear and stress. But, each interacts with this brain system in different ways, and the exact effects of each are person-specific. 

THC is psychoactive, which means it changes how your brain works. This is the part of the plant that creates the euphoric “high” commonly associated with cannabis use. Since it has mood-elevating effects, it’s commonly believed to be useful for managing anxiety systems. However, depending on the dosage and an individual’s tolerance, it may actually cause anxiety and paranoia. Overall, studies have found that small doses of THC can reduce anxiety in some, but higher doses increase anxiety in most people. 

CBD, on the other hand, does not create this “high” sensation but does have a relaxing effect. Recent studies have shown that it can reduce anxiety. However, most of these studies look at controlled doses of FDA-approved pharmaceutical forms of CBD, like epidiolex. 

“Getting these controlled doses, which require a prescription, is a little bit different than just walking into a dispensary and saying, “Hey, I need CBD oil for my anxiety,” said Wilson. 

Prescriptions are regulated dosages tailored specifically to your needs, whereas CBD and THC picked up in dispensaries vary in quality and potency. This is especially true today as vapes and edibles become increasingly common. Both release cannabis in higher concentrations than smoking does, so it’s very easy to consume too much, and overconsumption increases the odds of cannabis spurring anxiety. 

“The drug interactions are really concerning and, if people are gonna use CBD, they need to make sure that they are running it by a physician,” said Wilson. 

“Weed Alleviates My Worries” Is Not a Long-Term Solution

If you are one of the people who finds that joints, dab pens or edibles relieve your anxiety, you have not found a sustainable, long-term solution. While it may alleviate your worries in the short term, it will not help you manage your anxiety in the long term. 

Think of it like a bandaid. When the drug wears off, the anxiety will likely come back. For many, this can create a vicious cycle where they are dependent on cannabis to get through the day. This is not sustainable, and potentially unhealthy. 

One of the most effective treatments for anxiety is a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that gets at the root cause of your worries. It challenges you to expose yourself to the things that trigger your anxiety so you can practice regulating your emotions around them.  

For some people, this talk therapy needs to be complimented by medication to subdue overwhelming feelings of anxiety. However, even though some preliminary research says CBD and THC may be effective in specific doses for some people, cannabis products are largely unregulated and their effects on anxiety are not nearly as well understood as other common prescription medications like fluoxetine and sertraline.

As the medical community’s understanding of cannabis and anxiety continues to evolve, we urge you to consult a doctor about your specific needs. If you’re struggling with anxiety, you’re not alone and there are lots of well-tested therapies and medications to help you. Cannabis is not one of them. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with cannabis misuse, our PreventEd counselors are here to assist. Please fill out this form to get in touch. 

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