For many, anxiety is a fact of life in the modern world. And judging by a recent American Psychiatric Association study, it’s on the rise. The US “anxiety score” rose by 5 points in 2018 from the number reported in 2017, bringing it to 51 out of 100. For the 1,000 respondents to this survey, there were more things to worry about than not.
In the US, 40 million people suffer from anxiety disorders, while globally, the estimate is 300 million — 1 in 13 people. Anxiety disorders can manifest in excessive worry, social anxiety, difficulty concentrating, headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, nausea and panic attacks. Increasingly, more people are turning to medical cannabis to manage these problems.
Medical cannabis doesn’t work for everyone with anxiety, and there are important differences between the effects of medical cannabis and related treatments such as cannabidiol (CBD). Some intriguing results have been reported, however, especially for people dealing with the following conditions.
Nearly 3% of Americans suffer from panic disorders every year — an experience of overwhelming fear with no apparent cause. These disorders often trigger physical symptoms that can be mistaken for a heart attack or stroke, causing shortness of breath, loss of muscle control, and heart palpitations.
Why does medical cannabis have the potential to help deal with heightened anxiety events like panic attacks? It’s because people have receptors in their brains to receive cannabinoids (the biochemical compounds contained in cannabis) in the central amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for the regulation of stress-response physiology and emotional learning processes. These receptors play a major role in managing anxiety
Mice also have these cannabinoid receptors, and a 2014 Vanderbilt University study showed that external cannabinoids (like those in medical cannabis) can have a beneficial effect (Endocannabinoid Mobilization) on stress response and emotional learning.
However, other research suggests a correlation between lifetime cannabis use and the development of panic disorders, such as this 2010 study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.
The reason for these seemingly contradictory findings is that THC (the psychoactive property in medical cannabis) has biphasic properties, meaning that low and high doses generate opposite effects. Appropriate doses can sedate and help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, but excessive doses can actually produce the symptoms that the medical cannabis is intended to prevent.
This is the catch-all of anxiety disorders, and it affects 3.1% of the US population. This is a step up from the level of anxiety classed as “normal,” and it can cause people to experience overthinking, an inability to let go of worries, difficulty handling uncertainty, and perceiving a situation as threatening even when it isn’t likely to cause harm.
When treating generalized anxiety with medical cannabis, it’s important to keep THC’s biphasic properties in mind, as it has been shown to help alleviate anxiety in lower doses while raising it in higher doses, according to a study from the University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.
According to the same study, CBD does not seem to have similar anxiety-raising properties, instead appearing “to decrease anxiety at all doses that have been tested.”
Social anxiety disorder is one of the more prevalent anxiety disorders, affecting 6.8% of the American population. However, it’s also one of the least-frequently diagnosed, with 80% of sufferers receiving no treatment.
Social anxiety is a fear of judgment, rejection, or being negatively received in a social situation. This is another type of anxiety that has long been associated with cannabis use, a correlation quantified in a 2002 study published in the American Medical Journal that found American adults suffering from social anxiety are “7 times more likely to develop a cannabis addiction.”
Researchers have found that medical cannabis could be “extremely attractive” as a treatment for social anxiety, although major questions still remain about the correct dosage levels and delivery methods. CBD has also been shown to help with social anxiety symptoms — for instance, in a study that challenged participants with a public speaking scenario.
Pain management is one of medical cannabis’s most heralded strengths, and it has shown to be effective for everything from arthritis-related inflammation to muscle soreness.
But it can also be an effective remedy for stress-based tension. There are a variety of ways that medical cannabis and CBD oil can help relieve tightness before it leads to more dire effects, such as back pain or headaches.
One way is with a topical cream, which restricts its effects to a localized area. If the tension isn’t restricted to a smaller area, another method such as cannabis-infused edibles or smoothies may work better.
While the science behind headaches isn’t fully understood, we do know that they’re often triggered by feelings of anxiety. Medical cannabis can be used to treat many varieties of headaches — for example, it’s frequently prescribed to help manage migraines.
Some migraine headaches are brought on by inflammation, which THC can help to reduce. Though this line of inquiry is new, a 2016 University of Colorado study produced some impressive results among a group of 121 migraine sufferers, showing that the use of THC helped decrease their frequency of migraines from 10.4 headaches per month to 4.6.
This treatment isn’t new, although it has gained increased relevance in the wake of growing concerns about the overprescription of opioids for self-reported conditions like migraines. Evidence for cannabis’s use in the treatment of headaches goes back to ancient Greek, Assyrian, and Ayurvedic traditions — it was even a preferred remedy of Queen Victoria’s head physician.
As we come to understand more about the proper administration of medical cannabis, it seems hopeful that more of its effects will be understood — and people with anxiety will have much to gain.
The content on cannabisMD is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.