Now that marijuana is gradually gaining acceptance and legalization in the United States, many are wondering about the potential for marijuana’s medical uses, with anxiety relief being one of the most sought after.
With 18.1% of the American adult population suffering from anxiety and marijuana’s reputation of chilling people out, the fact that people are turning to marijuana for treatment isn’t surprising.
However, with stories of marijuana both easing and causing anxiety, can marijuana actually help with anxiety?
3 Health Benefits of Marijuana
Benefit #1: Relief in the Short Term
In a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers asked a group of medical marijuana users to rate how marijuana affected them on an app. Through this self-reporting, researchers found that marijuana was able to relieve negative symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in the short term. However, as time went on, researchers found that prolonged marijuana use seemed to intensify depressive symptoms.
In addition to the Journal of Affective Disorders study, there is also a Psychopharmacology study that indicates that marijuana use could lower levels of cortisol, which is a hormone that’s tied to how much stress you feel.
Thus, if you monitor your use of marijuana, it’s possible that you can harness the short term effects to help you deal with anxiety, but you should look for a long term solution.
Benefit #2: All-Natural Replacement for Pharmaceuticals
For some, the idea of relying on anxiety medications is off-putting. Not only do anxiety medications manipulate your brain chemistry, but they can also cause uncomfortable side effects, such as dry mouth, fatigue, weight gain, and sexual problems. At worst, they may even cause suicidal thoughts.
While marijuana isn’t side effect-free either, since marijuana comes from a plant, some consider marijuana an all-natural solution that is much more comforting and less risky.
Benefit #3: Brings Normalcy Back To Your Life
When you’re suffering from anxiety, the nervousness and stress reach overwhelming levels. While a little worrying is normal, the worrying that anxious people have to deal with make it so that they can’t function well in their daily lives.
Since marijuana can help alleviate anxious symptoms, it’s natural for people turn to medical marijuana as a way to bring normalcy back to their lives. Being able to manage the symptoms that have run their lives for so long is a hugely compelling reason to try medical marijuana.
The Controversy Around Using Marijuana to Treat Anxiety
1. Safety Concerns
Before you go off to the dispensary, it’s important to note that many in the medical community cite safety concerns for using medical marijuana.
The first reason is that there is a lack of clinical testing to definitively prove marijuana’s positive effects on anxiety. Instead, most information backing up marijuana’s anxiety-relieving effects is anecdotal. This is particularly true for information available online, such as in articles like this and this one.
Similarly, using marijuana to self-medicate could be dangerous because the growing and cultivation of marijuana isn’t regulated or standardized, which means that your marijuana experience may vary from use to use. You could also be put at unnecessary risk because of possible contaminants that could make the marijuana unsafe.
All of these safety concerns stem from the fact that marijuana is currently restricted by federal law as a Schedule 1 drug. This restriction makes clinical study much more difficult and makes regulation impossible since it’s technically illegal to grow and develop it in most parts of the U.S.
2. Restricted By Federal Law
While federal restrictions causes safety concerns for consumers, they’re are also detrimental to physicians as well. If doctors want to prescribe medical marijuana to a patient, they risk violating federal law and having their Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) licenses taken away, since the DEA discourages medical marijuana use.
This means that doctors have their hands tied and can only give you a recommendation for marijuana, rather than a prescription, due to a loophole created by Conant v. Walters that only punishes physicians if they aid the patient’s procurement of marijuana by prescribing or distributing it.
3. Could Make Anxiety Worse
Not all marijuana strains will affect you the same. When you’re choosing which strain of marijuana to use, pay attention to cannabidiol (CBD) v. tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels in the marijuana. These cannabinoids bind to receptors in your brain, including those located in the amygdala, which controls fear and pleasure responses.
According to Susan A. Stoner’s research, the doses of THC and CBD that interact with the brain matters. THC, associated with the sensation of getting high, lowers anxiety in smaller doses, but raises it in higher doses, while CBD, responsible for marijuana’s calming effects, lowers anxiety at all doses.
This means that if you accidentally use a marijuana strain with too high of a dose of THC, you run the risk of triggering an anxiety attack and making your condition worse.
4. Not the Intended Use of Medical Marijuana
Although anxiety is one of the top reasons that people look to marijuana for relief, this wasn’t the intended medical use of marijuana.
Instead, restrictions were placed on marijuana so that it would only be used to treat debilitating illnesses, such as pain and nausea resulting from cancer treatment or the seizures that led to the creation of a special stain of marijuana called “Charlotte’s Web”. This focus on debilitating illness relief was to stop people from using marijuana recreationally.
5. Anxiety is Multifaceted
Not everyone who suffers from anxiety goes through the same experience. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the term “anxiety” encompasses Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and different phobia-related disorders. Depending on which kind of anxiety you are living with, marijuana may not be the right treatment for you.
According to Stoner’s research, people dealing with social anxieties, considered a part of GAD, use marijuana at much higher rates than people dealing with panic disorders, who avoid marijuana due to a worry of triggering panic attacks.
This concern isn’t unwarranted. Since cannabinoids interact with your amygdala and could cause fear-based responses, marijuana use prompting panic attacks is entirely possible, potentially making marijuana unsuitable for those with panic disorders.
6. You Could Experience Withdrawal
If you choose to use marijuana to help you deal with anxiety, you should also be concerned about handling withdrawal if you start moving away from marijuana use.
In a study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers found that marijuana withdrawal symptoms can be “disabling”, with 76% of subjects experiencing symptoms that mirror those of anxiety disorders.
This means that if you ever decide to stop using marijuana, you open yourself up to more anxiety down the road or dependency if you can’t deal with withdrawal symptoms.
While marijuana has anxiety relieving effects when used in the short term, it may be safer to wait until more research is done before relying on marijuana to manage your condition. With so much about marijuana not yet backed up by clinical study, the risk factors are too high to guarantee that marijuana is a suitable treatment for anxiety.
And if you do want to give it a try, just make sure it's legal where you live first!