While more research is necessary to start incorporating cannabis as a legitimate medicine for anxiety, the research we already have gives us a lot of insight into this phenomenon. And there’s clear evidence as to why some people feel at ease after smoking a joint and others feel on edge.
Before we even discuss cannabis, it’s important to understand what’s happening in our brains when we feel anxiety. Granted, anxiety is a natural occurrence we all feel from time to time and, in many regards, this is our brain’s organic response to danger. However, if anxiety is persistent and interferes with our day-to-day lives, then we have what’s known as an anxiety disorder.
While anxiety disorders can come in a variety of forms – from social anxiety disorder (SAD) to a panic disorder – our brains are effected similarly no matter the type of anxiety we struggle with. The hippocampus and amygdala are two areas of the brain that physically change over time when someone struggles with anxiety. These areas are responsible for processing incoming sensory signals that play a number of functions within our body, including:
• Short-term memory
• Mental health (anxiety and depression)
There are reasons that these brain changes vary from person-to-person. It’s generally understood that genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and environment (i.e. home life and/or life events) play a major role in whether or not we’ll develop an anxiety disorder.
However, what’s more important to understand is since everyone’s amygdala and hippocampus are built and function differently, our reactions to cannabis are anything but the same. Here’s a brief explanation of why this occurs.
When we consume phytocannabinoids – whether they be tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD) – they have a direct or indirect effect on our endocannabinoid system (ECS).Our ECS is defined as a “molecular system responsible for regulating and balancing many processes in the body, including immune response, communication between cells, appetite and metabolism, memory, and more.” 4 Within our ECS are two distinct receptors known as CB1 and CB2 receptors.
These bind to various areas of the body, including the brain and central nervous system, in order to communicate a balance of everyday functions.5While CB1 and CB2 receptors aren’t entirely understood, some studies have made remarkable discoveries. For example, Dr. Sachin Patel, director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University discovered that when CB1 receptors in the brain’s amygdala are blocked or “the gene that encodes it [are] deleted,” a person will experience more anxiety.6Cannabis produces similar chemical structures to our endocannabinoids known as phytocannabinoids. When we consume cannabis these phytocannabinoids are responsible for the effects we feel.THC plays the most interesting role in terms of its effects and anxiety.
When you consume cannabis containing high amounts of THC, it “gets into the brain and rapidly attaches to cannabinoid receptors. The natural EC system is finely tuned to react appropriately to incoming information. But THC overwhelms the EC system.
It prevents the natural chemicals from doing their job properly and throws the whole system off balance.”7In other words, since THC is attaching itself to cannabinoid receptors, natural receptors within our brain aren’t allowed to do their job. Since this throws the whole system off, it can have a number of different functions within the brain – all depending on the individual and their brain structure. For the sake of our discussion, it can very well prevent anxiety or induce it.
Our brains are extremely intricate and, with that, adapt to outside chemicals in versatile ways. As we’ve discussed, cannabis has a way of either relieving or prompting anxiety and much of this depends on our overall personality.
For example, those who struggle with a social anxiety disorder (SAD) may find that cannabis only induces panic when they’re with other people. In this example, the individual may observe that when s/he is alone, cannabis can have alleviating effects. The reason a person may feel this way is due to the fact that the amygdala and hippocampus are only alarmed when in a social setting.
Understanding your anxiety disorder can be extremely beneficial in determining how cannabis can play a role. In another, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often only experience symptoms when reminded of their traumatic event (either through an object or situation).
These people may find that cannabis helps them on a regular basis – however, when reminded of their traumatic event, the plant also holds the power to induce anxiety.
In order to get a better understanding of your situation, it helps greatly to receive professional treatment for anxiety. These usually appear in two ways – medication and psychotherapies (sometimes referred to as “talk therapies”).
We want to put a strong emphasis on psychotherapies as these have been proven to help patients better comprehend what is happening within their brains. Generally speaking, psychotherapy can take place in a group or individual setting and involves identifying and addressing thought/behavior patterns.8 While there’s no scientific evidence to back us up, we feel assured in saying that those who have a comprehension as to how their brain functions will be much more likely to benefit from cannabis.
Still, the only way to truly understand how cannabis is going to affect your anxiety is by taking it yourself. If you’ve already tried cannabis, then you probably already have a strong idea of how it affects you.
However, if you’ve never taken cannabis, the unfortunate truth is no amount of research will be able to determine exactly how your brain is going to react.
With everything we’ve discussed throughout this article, you may find that cannabis just isn’t right for you. While Weed World is always in support of cannabis activism, we understand that it’s just not for everyone.
But before you drop cannabis altogether, we do suggest you give cannabidiol (CBD) a try.CBD is another phytocannabinoid found within the cannabis plant that produces no psychoactivity – in other words, it won’t get you high. More notably, it works on your ECS much differently than THC. While THC enhances CB1 receptors, CBD actually does quite the opposite and balances out both CB1 and CB2 receptors.9This is the main reason a lot of researchers have turned to CBD concerning anxiety. THC’s properties within the brain and body provide too much of a risk.
When CB1 receptors are enhanced, there’s no telling how someone will react. However, if those receptors are evened out, there’s a good chance various moods will stabilize, including anxiety.Not to mention, it’s been discovered that people who struggle with anxiety tend to have low levels of serotonin. Recent research has found that CBD may hold the ability to boost serotonin and, in turn, help those who have trouble naturally producing it. For this reason, CBD is also being looked into as a potential for treatment of depression along with anxiety.
While more research needs to be done, it’s safe to say many people who struggle with anxiety have found CBD to better help them relieve symptoms in comparison to THC. A quick Google search will lead you down a rabbit-hole of articles, blogs, and online forums filled with people proclaiming the relief CBD has provided them.
Just like THC, we can’t say for certain that CBD will alleviate your anxiety. However, we can say – due to its lack of psychoactivity and extremely minimal side effects – it’s worth a shot
Written and Published By Paul James In Weed World Magazine Issue 147