Cannabis for Anxiety: A Safer Solution

By Gooey Rabinski | August 27, 2015

More than 40 million people in the United States over the age of 18 suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Collectively, these conditions are the most common mental illness in the country. Consider the fact that more people suffer anxiety disorders than arthritis, the leading cause of physical disability that affects more than 30 million people.

Whether Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or Panic Disorder, millions are plagued each day by stress and anxiety that leads to dozens of other stress-related ailments and physical conditions, including agoraphobia, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular conditions.

Among this segment of society are also those who suffer specific phobias, such as acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and glossophobia (fear of public speaking; the most common phobia).

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Those who suffer from anxiety-related disorders experience a variety of symptoms, from irritability, feelings of dread, and nausea to insomnia, fatigue, chest pain and heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and panic attacks.

For many, severe anxiety, along with the fear and hopelessness that often accompany it, becomes a debilitating condition that results in damaged careers, wrecked social lives, and tarnished family relations. Often, those who suffer severe anxiety also succumb to depression and self-medicate with alcohol or opiates.

Long History of Use

The historical use of cannabis to treat anxiety disorders goes back possibly thousands of years. In 1563, Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese physician, herbalist, and naturalist, published Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, the earliest book on the medicinal plants of India. The publication claimed that cannabis helped patients suffering from anxiety to be “delivered from all worries and care.”

In 1621, nearly half a millennia ago, English clergyman Robert Burton suggested cannabis for the treatment of depression, one of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders. In 1860, the Ohio State Medical Committee on Cannabis concluded:

“As a calmative and hypnotic, in all forms of nervous inquietude and cerebral excitement, [cannabis] will be found an invaluable agent, as it produces none of those functional derangements or sequences that render many of the more customary remedies objectionable.”

The Ohio State Medical Committee report also noted that indica strains were best for treating anxiety, although it wasn’t known at the time that it was because they typically contain more CBD, which is believed to be more effective than THC for the condition.

Pharmaceutical Treatments Lacking

The medications used to treat this wide variety of anxiety disorders are quite common and include Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Valium (diazepam). Also frequently prescribed are Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Wellbutrin (bupropion).

Despite their commonality, many of these drugs deliver agonizing side effects that are often worse than the conditions they are prescribed to treat. Insomnia, depression, hallucinations, and even suicidal thoughts (especially in teens) are all-too-common with these drugs.

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With such negative (and highly ironic) side effects from these pharmaceutical treatments, it’s no wonder that millions of Americans have opted to self-medicate with alcohol, opiates, or medical cannabis.

Addiction, Withdrawal, and Overdose

Unlike cannabis, many pharmaceutical treatments result in physical addiction, including withdrawal when abruptly discontinued. In addition, most of these drugs can lead to overdose, something that’s impossible with marijuana (even with concentrates like kief, hash oil, and wax).

In 2014, a school teacher in California reported collapsing on her kitchen floor and being unconscious for more than an hour. Upon waking, she suffered tremors and hallucinations. “I felt these horrible jolts running through my head and body; I couldn’t stop jerking. Then I began seeing stuff that wasn’t there, creepy-crawly things. I didn’t know what was happening, but I worried I might be dying.”

Unfortunately, these were simply the withdrawal symptoms of Xanax, a drug she consumed for more than eight years to battle insomnia, which her doctor believed to be caused by anxiety. At the time she discontinued use and suffered these withdrawal symptoms, she was being prescribed 6 mg of the drug, an unusually high dosage.

Harris Stratyner, co-chairman of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, emphasized that many such cases result from patients using these dangerous drugs as prescribed, with no signs of abuse. He said:

“Dependence on benzodiazepines like Xanax is a serious problem, especially among young women. Frequently, it’s not because they’ve been abusing the drugs; it can be caused by following the prescription their doctor gave them.”

THC and CBD Efficacy

THC, the psychoactive component present in most strains of cannabis, is a dual-edged sword in the fight against anxiety. At low quantities, it has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and worry. At high doses, this miracle molecule can actually produce greater stress and even panic attacks.

When considering the efficacy of THC for anxiety, dosing has been revealed to be critical. The frustration of this, of course, is that all patients are different. A particular strain of cannabis that contains, for example, 12 percent THC may cause a panic attack in one person while producing tranquility and relaxation in another.

Unfortunately, many studies involve the use of a synthetic variant of THC or an extraction that contains only this special cannabinoid. Experts point to the entourage effect and the fact that there are more than 111 cannabinoids produced by cannabis plants in their criticism of such research and the efficacy that is often lost when a single cannabinoid is isolated for testing purposes.

CBD, on the other hand, which is typically more abundant in indica strains, has been shown to be more effective at dealing with anxiety and stress.

The Studies

In 1982, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed that CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is commonly used to treat childhood epilepsy and put cancer into remission, decreased the anxiety experienced by high quantities of THC.

According to a 1999 study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, anxiety disorders cost the United States more than $40 billion — about one-third of the nation’s $150 billion mental health bill at the time.

In 2011, researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil gave 400 mg doses of CBD to patients suffering from generalized Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), a condition that afflicts roughly 12 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. It found that cerebral blood flow after CBD treatment indicates an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect in the regions of the brain that control emotions.

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The study concluded:

“Relative to placebo, CBD was associated with significantly decreased subjective anxiety…. These results suggest that CBD reduces anxiety in SAD [Social Anxiety Disorder].”

A study published in 2012 concluded that cannabis helps sufferers erase bad memories. The study observed:

“Both for anxiety and fear memory processing, endocannabinoid signalling may ensure an appropriate reaction to stressful events. Therefore, the ECS [endocannabinoid system] can be considered as a regulatory buffer system for emotional responses.”

A study released in 2014 involving researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, and Indiana University in Bloomington revealed that the endocannabinoid system regulates anxiety and responses to stress. It found that chronic stress and severe emotional trauma can reduce the production of endocannabinoids produced naturally by the human body. Thus, it is believed that the phytocannabinoids provided by cannabis supplement this cannabinoid deficiency.

Cannabis has long had a reputation as a substance that helps users “chill out” and relax. Indica strains are infamous for delivering so much relaxation, in fact, that many experience couchlock and are unable to be productive.

However, when properly dosed and recommended by a physician (something only possible in legal states with dispensary networks), cannabis — especially strains low in THC and high in CBD — may be an effective and significantly safer alternative to the slew of pharmaceutical drugs commonly prescribed for many forms of anxiety.

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Strains for Anxiety

Several strains of cannabis have been proven to effectively combat stress and anxiety. A few are listed below. Click the image below that reads “The Best Strains for Anxiety” to see more.

  • Blue Dream: This hybrid of Haze and Blueberry offers an initial energizing effect from its sativa side, followed by total body relaxation.
  • Girl Scout Cookies: This cross of the landrace sativa Durban Poison and OG Kush helps combat stress, nausea, and pain. However, it is relatively high in THC and may not be best for those who easily suffer anxiety from such strains.
  • Harlequin: This hybrid, which is generally sativa-dom (not typically known to be good for stress reduction), also offers a relatively large amount of CBD, making it a good candidate for many patients to combat stress and anxiety while remaining active and productive.
  • Gorilla Glue #4: This hybrid, which is an ideal strain for pain relief, is also famous for causing couchlock and extreme relaxation.
  • Critical Mass: This indica strain is characterized by high amounts of both THC and CBD. It typically produces strong relaxation and even body tingles.
  • Afghan Kush: This landrace strain is a pure indica and originated in the Hindu Kush mountains, between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is known to induce intense relaxation that may hinder functionality and result in drowsiness (typical of potent indica strains).

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Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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