The Relationship Between Cannabis and Anxiety
Wed, April 21, 2021

The Relationship Between Cannabis and Anxiety

More and more countries and states are legalizing the use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes, and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing their anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) / Photo by epicstockmedia via 123RF


More and more countries and states are legalizing the use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing their anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). All around the world, the prevalence of anxiety disorder varies from 2.5% to 7% by country and it is estimated that 284 million people have experienced an anxiety disorder attack just in 2017, thus making it the most prevalent mental health or neurodevelopmental disorder in the world, as reported by Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems. 

According to Statista, an online portal for statistics, in Canada in 2018, only 58% of physicians who are all for cannabis legalization expect users to become dependent on the substance while 60% believed it will have a serious effect on the brain. A survey conducted a year later on American adults showed that 55% of respondents said they only take cannabis for relaxation while 39% did so to relieve chronic pain. Some 50% though, used cannabis to help them overcome their anxiety.


What Is Anxiety?

It is perfectly normal to feel anxious from time to time especially when a person is experiencing a stressful life event. However, excessive anxiety to the point that it can interfere with a person’s daily activities may be a sign or symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. This mental condition can develop in children and adults, and it has symptoms similar to panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other types of anxiety. Living with this condition may be a long-term challenge and, in some cases, it can occur alongside other mood disorders. 

The treatment for anxiety disorder is based on how significant it is in affecting the person’s ability to function in their daily lives. The two main treatments for generalized anxiety disorder are psychotherapy and medication. It may benefit most from the combination of the two but it may take a lot of trial and error to discover what kind of treatment is best suitable for a certain individual. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, a reputable source for medical research news, psychotherapy (otherwise known as talk therapy or psychological counseling), involves working with a therapist in order to reduce anxiety symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral is one of the most well known and effective forms of psychotherapy for this kind of disorder since it teaches the patient to focus on learning specific skills to directly manage their stress and worries and eventually help them return to the activities that they have been avoiding because of their anxiety.

Moreover, medication can also be used to treat this disorder. Antidepressants, buspirone, and benzodiazepine are the most common types of medication for treating anxiety. It just varies with the severity of the condition of the patient and how fast-acting the relief of the medication should be. Other forms of medication are also now being used to treat anxiety and, in some states, medical marijuana is used to calm people down and help them manage their anxiety levels better. 

Cannabis as a Treatment for Anxiety

Researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center claimed that there is a specific molecule produced in the brain that activates the same receptors as marijuana and it is protective against stress by reducing anxiety-causing connections between the two regions in the brain. The study was published in the journal Neuron and it claimed that it can help explain why some people feel alleviated from stress and anxiety when they use marijuana, as reported on Science Daily, a medical and academic news website.  

The molecule is known as “2-AG,” and when the levels of this molecule increase in the brain, it could regulate anxiety and depressive symptoms in people with stress-related anxiety disorders that can potentially avoid reliance on medical marijuana and other similar medications and treatments. The researchers experimented on mice. They exposed the animals to acute stress and break in an anxiety-produced connection between the amygdala and the frontal cortex that caused the 2-AG molecule to temporarily disappear, causing the sudden emergence of anxiety-related behaviors in the mice. 

According to Dr. Sachin Patel, the first author of the study and the director of the Division of General Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the link between the amygdala and the frontal cortex has been shown to be stronger in people with certain types of anxiety disorders. When people or animals are exposed to stress, they then get more anxious and these two areas in the brain tend to increase their activity and grow stronger together. 

Patel added that he and his team might be able to predict the collapse of the endocannabinoid system that includes the 2-AG molecule in the patients that go on to develop an anxiety disorder. However, not everyone develops a psychiatric disorder after being exposed to high levels of stress or a traumatic incident. So perhaps people who do not develop any kind of anxiety disorder are more able to maintain the system in some way and the pathways are not affected. 

Moreover, the study also found that the signaling between the amygdala and the frontal cortex can be strengthened through genetic manipulation that compromises endogenous cannabinoid signaling in this pathway, thus causing the mice to become anxious even without exposure to stress. This finding indicated that the cannabinoid signaling system that suppresses information flow between these two brain regions is tremendously important for setting the level of anxiety in animals and people. 

However, Patel said that they still do not know how or why this cannabinoid signaling system disappears or disintegrates in response to stress, but it results in the strengthening of the connection between the amygdala and the frontal cortex that can heighten anxiety symptoms and behaviors in mice and most probably in people as well. Hence, it is very crucial to understand what causes the compromise and what causes the signaling system to return after a few days. The research team is hoping to answer such questions in their experiment that they are following upon. 


Potential Side Effects of Cannabis Use

According to Verywell Mind, a medical, academic, and wellness news website, even if marijuana is taken in large doses and is not evidently fatal, it can still affect the person in multiple ways. For instance, if the person uses marijuana as an anxiety coping tool, they can develop a psychological dependence on the substance. Furthermore, earlier studies have shown that long-term marijuana use can cause memory problems and memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because the THC that is present in cannabis alters other areas of the brain, specifically the hippocampus that is mainly responsible for memory formation. Lastly, in rare cases, the frequent use of marijuana may exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety by making the person feel more scared and paranoid.