Affecting approximately 40 million adults, anxiety is the most common mental health illness in the United States. With the onset of COVID-19, reported cases of anxiety have risen exponentially. With isolation at an all-time high and combined with financial insecurity, millions of Americans are more anxious than ever. As a MMJ certification company, we’ve seen this first-hand. The majority of our clients cite anxiety as the reason they are seeking their medical marijuana card.
Fortunately for everyone, anxiety is widely-recognized to be one of the conditions that benefits greatly from the use of medical marijuana. Like all substances, cannabis reacts differently depending on the individual. This is why you’ll sometimes hear people saying that their anxiety was heightened after consuming cannabis, while others wax poetic about weed and how it’s the only thing that helps. In this blog, we’ll discuss how marijuana can help ease anxiety and why strain, dose, and delivery makes all the difference.
An Introduction to Anxiety
As the most common mental health illness in our country, it may be shocking to learn that only 36.9% of people with anxiety receive any kind of treatment. The reason for this may be due, in part, to the stigma that generally surrounds mental health disorders. Many people think that they are capable of treating the condition on their own through sheer force of will. On the other hand, many shy away from traditional treatment because they do not want to rely on prescription medications.
Anxiety can be life-altering. After all, it can restrict someone from accomplishing even the smallest of tasks. A constant barrage of negative thoughts can make it difficult to focus on a singular task or fall asleep—you close your eyes and already fear for what might come along with a new sunrise. You may find it difficult to breathe if you’re in a new environment or facing a daunting task. You may find yourself having all of these experiences, as anxiety is a spectrum that can manifest a wide variety of strange and complicated symptoms, including rashes, headaches, fatigue, and more.
A Primer on the Various Anxiety Disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Often occurring alongside major depression disorder (MDD), GAD consists of ongoing and excessive stress or worry about a variety of things that is difficult to control. It is diagnosed if a patient has trouble controlling their worry on a daily basis for at least six months. A diagnosis also requires patients to have one of the following symptoms:
- Experiencing a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Increased heart rate
- Hyperventilation, sweating, or trembling
- Inability to focus
- Gastrointestinal (GI) issues
- Feeling fatigued or weak
- Nervousness and irritability
- Issues sleeping
When a patient experiences random and spontaneous panic attacks, and are continuously worried about the prospect of another, they are diagnosed with panic disorder. This condition typically appears in adults after the age of 20, but children have also been diagnosed. Furthermore, children may experience parallel symptoms to the condition, including fearful spells. Panic disorder is also twice as likely to appear in women than in men. Symptoms of a panic attack may appear as:
- Heart palpitations, pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heart rate
- Shortness of breath or feeling unable to breathe
- Shaking or trembling
- Choking feeling
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Nausea or abdominal issues
- Feelings of detachment from self or reality
- Fear of dying or “going crazy”
Social Anxiety Disorder
Also referred to as SAD or social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense anxiety or fear of being rejected in a social or professional situation, negatively evaluated, or being judged. Many of those with SAD are continuously preoccupied with the worry that people may see them as boring, stupid, or awkward, or people will notice that they are visibly anxious. Patients with social anxiety disorder often avoid social situations. They are often aware that their fear or anxiety is unreasonable, but feel powerless against their condition. SAD also presents physical symptoms, including:
- Rapid heart rate
- Panic attacks
Traditional Courses of Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
Treatment for anxiety conditions themselves are as varied as its symptoms, but fall into two distinct categories: psychotherapy and medications. Many patients with anxiety disorders benefit greatly by a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Additionally, it may take a great deal of time for some to find the right medication or therapist to help them battle their condition, while others see fast benefits with medication and therapy, or either or.
A lot of individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders are urged to seek psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or psychological counseling to help reduce their symptoms. Experts in the industry often cite cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as the most effective form of therapy for anxiety since it is a relatively short-term treatment that teaches patients how to effectively improve symptoms on their own so they can cope in the long-term.
CBT often utilizes exposure therapy, which encourages individuals battling anxiety disorders to face situations and experiences that cause them the most worry. The thought is that, with prolonged exposure, patients can build up a tolerance to stressful events and learn to manage their condition through them.
There are many medications prescribed to those battling anxiety disorders. Which medication is prescribed depends on a variety of factors, including if the patient has other health concerns, current medication regimens, and the symptoms they are presenting with. However, typically, patients are prescribed either antidepressants, an anti-anxiety medication known as buspirone, or sedatives like benzodiazepines or beta-blockers. The latter medications are provided for short-term relief and not intended as a long-term solution, so they are offered in limited situations.
Issues with Traditional Anxiety Treatments
As mentioned above, treatments for anxiety disorders vary greatly depending on the symptoms a patient has and the form of anxiety they are diagnosed with. What’s more, many people struggle with finding relief at all. Considering that so few patients with anxiety seek treatment, whether in the form of medication or psychotherapy, it poses the question as to what is stopping people from continuing, or even starting, to treat their condition?
For many, the answer to that question comes down to a discomfort in relying on pharmaceuticals to get through their day, or a discomfort in speaking to a stranger about the challenges they face. For others, the answer is that the medications they tried resulted in adverse reactions or therapy gave them coping skills, but not enough to significantly improve their quality of life or reduce symptoms.
When we write about prescriptions, we always point out that because our bodies are so different, medication is unlikely to affect everyone in the same way. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand that while medication works to improve some patient’s anxiety, it may not work as well for another, even someone with the same symptoms.
Given these challenges to traditional treatments for anxiety disorders, many have looked towards more homeopathic solutions. These may include a regular regimen of physical activity, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, utilizing stress management or relaxation techniques, prioritizing sleep, and a healthy diet. While many industry experts and health care professionals suggest adopting these habits, whether in conjunction with traditional treatments or on their own, they are often preventative measures. For example, hopping on an exercise bike is unlikely to lessen the symptoms of an anxiety attack—though deep breathing may.
In addition to the homeopathic remedies listed above, there has been increased support for the use of marijuana to manage symptoms of anxiety in recent years.
Using Medical Marijuana to Treat Anxiety
As we always must point out, there is not an abundance of research into marijuana as a whole since it is still illegal on a federal level and labeled a Schedule I drug. However, research that does exist suggests that cannabis may be a viable replacement for traditional anti-anxiety medications since it has similar elements to prescriptions used to treat the condition.
Benzodiazepines, mentioned above, which are often prescribed to treat symptoms of anxiety disorders, regulate the levels of a neurotransmitter known as GABA that balances anxiety levels. The issue with benzodiazepines is that most patients build a tolerance to the substance too fast. This increased tolerance has led to thousands of overdoses a year.
Fortunately, current research suggests that marijuana affects GABA levels, as well—especially when it contains a high level of cannabidiol (CBD). It also has the potential to lower cortisol levels, which controls how the body feels stress.
When it comes to using medical marijuana to treat anxiety, however, it is of the utmost importance that you understand that some strains are better than others. Furthermore, it’s integral to speak to a dispensary pharmacist or cannabis expert to help you find the best strain or product for your needs.
For example, some people thrive when using sativa-dominant strains, which are known to produce a “heady” high, citing that it reduces their anxiety while helping them focus and stay alert. For others, a sativa-dominant strain may amplify anxiety, increasing their heart rate and promoting paranoia. Dosing is also important. Too much marijuana when you have yet to build a tolerance may produce an adverse reaction.
Cannabis experts and researchers are also increasingly supporting the use of cannabidiol (CBD) in conjunction with medical marijuana. When used together, CBD may help negate adverse side effects from THC. CBD has also proven to be beneficial by itself in reducing anxiety levels, as well as alleviating pain, muscle spasms, and seizures.
Additionally, medical marijuana can help relieve many symptoms of anxiety, in addition to the anxiety itself, including fatigue and concentration (if using a sativa-dominant strain), as well as insomnia (with indica-dominant strains). For those who experience anxiety as a side effect of another health condition, medical marijuana can help that reduce stress and worry.