Research shows that cannabis use has increased significantly since California set a precedent by legalizing medical cannabis in 1996. As of April 2022, 37 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the medical use of marijuana. The perceptions of the risk of harm from cannabis use among adults have also declined with the continued statewide legalization.
Mental health conditions appear like some of the many reasons behind medical cannabis use. One of these conditions is anxiety. Despite the little scientific research in this area, there are anecdotal and scientific reports of cannabis delivering a calming experience that eases anxiety symptoms, albeit in the short term.
Read on to learn the effects of cannabis on anxiety and how to dose it for the best results.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to potentially dangerous stimuli to promote survival. You experience feelings of tension, worry, or fear. Various factors can cause anxiety. These may include your family history, genes, life events, and chemical imbalances in the brain.
Some stressful situations can also cause you to become anxious. For example, moving to a new school or speaking in front of a crowd. But if your feelings of anxiety become frequent when there’s no dire need to express them, then you might be having an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders account for the most common mental health problems in the US. It is said that 1 out of 5 adults suffers from an anxiety disorder. The anxiety symptoms may include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Being on-edge
- Shortness of breath
- Hot flashes
- Pounding heart rate
- Stomach butterflies
Can Marijuana Treat Anxiety?
Despite many states legalizing cannabis for either medical or recreational use, there are still bottlenecks in place against the use of marijuana in medical research. That explains the limited scientific evidence to prove that cannabis can treat anxiety. But despite that, many people are turning to the herb for a solution.
A survey of medical marijuana users in 2016 reveals that 58 percent of users confirmed using marijuana for their anxiety. And a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders by scientists at Washington State University reveals that smoking marijuana can considerably ease self-reported levels of stress and anxiety for a short while. Equally, a 2012 study revealed that two-thirds of college students experiencing high social anxiety smoked cannabis to help manage social settings.
As a plant, marijuana comprises over 100 cannabinoids. The two main cannabinoids in marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC produces intoxicating effects, while CBD boasts of a more subtle, non-psychotropic effect.
THC alleviates anxiety at lower doses and increases anxiety at higher amounts. This was the finding in a recent study where participants were subjected to a psychological stress task and given a 7.5 mg low dose of THC and a 12.5 mg higher dose of THC.
In contrast, oral CBD has been suggested to reduce anxiety without anxiogenic effects in concentrated doses. Human studies reveal that 300 to 600 mg of CBD oil alleviates experimentally triggered anxiety in participants without anxiety disorders. Oral CBD also eases anxiety symptoms in people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in Anxiety
You might be wondering why marijuana treats anxiety at some doses and intensify at others. Well, the answer requires an in-depth look at the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoids like THC and CBD exert their effects via the endocannabinoid system.
The ECS is a wide network of receptors found across the body. It has two cannabinoid receptors called CB1 AND CB2. The primary role of ECS is to maintain a balanced state called homeostasis. It helps control different physiological processes. These may include pain sensation, appetite, stress, anxiety, metabolism, mood, and memory, just to name a few. The ECS particularly works with parts of the brain to modulate anxiety. These are the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.
The body naturally produces cannabis-like compounds known as endocannabinoids. Examples are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). When the brain triggers an anxiety response, the endocannabinoids typically interact with the ECS by binding onto CB1 receptors in the brain. So the brain can control anxiety symptoms thanks to the ECS acting as a regulatory buffer against emotional responses.
The brain has two neurotransmitters that enable communication between brain cells in response to anxiety. When activated by CB1 receptors, gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) will result in an anxiogenic response, causing anxiety. In contrast, glutamate elicits an anxiolytic response, alleviating anxiety. These two neurotransmitters don’t work together. To control anxiety, these two neurotransmitters must be modulated equally to avoid the creation of any anxiogenic response.
The chemical structure of THC and CBD resembles that of natural endocannabinoids. So these plant-based cannabinoids similarly bind to the CB1 receptors in the brain. Consequently, the CB1 inhibits the release of the neurotransmitter GABA, resulting in a push against the unstable neurotransmitters and easing anxiety’s effects.
Unlike CBD, THC can reduce or increase anxiety symptoms. This is because when it’s attached to CB1 receptors, it releases both GABA and glutamate compounds. So the best way to correct the imbalance is to regulate your THC to low doses to focus on only releasing glutamate and inhibiting GABA.
Dosing Cannabis for Anxiety
When using marijuana to treat anxiety, you’ll have to consider two important things:
- The delivery method
- The CBD/THC content in your product
The Delivery Method
- Inhalation: If you want fast-acting relief from anxiety, consider smoking dried cannabis flower. Vaping through a vaporizer pen is another fast-acting inhalation method. While you will get immediate relief, the effects from inhalation methods won’t last as long as those of edibles.
- Sublingual administering: Drop one or two drops of CBD oil under your tongue using a dropper. The effects take longer to kick in than inhaled cannabis but are faster than edibles. Oil tinctures offer the advantages of precise dosing and a smoke-free cannabis experience.
- Edibles: These are foods, candies, capsules, and drinks infused with marijuana. They typically take 1 to 2 hours before the effects kick in but the effects can last for several hours after that. You should, however, exercise great caution when taking cannabis edibles for anxiety relief. You don’t want to take a larger dose because the effects will be intense and last longer. A “microdose,” a dose too small to produce psychoactive effects, is ideal for lowering anxiety while remaining clearheaded.
The CBD/THC Content
Higher CBD doses are ideal for treating anxiety. Because of CBD’s non-intoxicating nature, you don’t have to be worried about dosing as you would with THC. It can alleviate anxiety effects at both low and high doses.
With CBD products, start with a 10 mg CBD dose. You can either increase or reduce your dose to find the sweet spot for your anxiety symptoms.
THC has a bi-phasic nature. At low doses, it treats anxiety. And at high doses, it amplifies anxiety symptoms. So you should begin with a small dose.
Most people experience anxiety relief with a 2.5 mg dose of THC. If the 2.5 mg dose doesn’t work, increase the dose in 0.5 mg increments until you find your sweet spot. For most patients, a 5 mg dose of THC will ease their anxiety problems while still delivering feelings of well-being.
If you must take large THC doses, then the trick is to combine it with CBD. Essentially, CBD acts as an antidote to THC’s unwanted side effects. So take a cannabis product with a 1:1 ratio of CBD and THC.
Best Marijuana Strains for Anxiety
Not all cannabis strains are suitable for treating anxiety. The CBD and THC percentages determine which strain works better for anxiety. Here are a few highly rated strains for alleviating anxiety:
- Harlequin: Harlequin is an evenly balanced CBD/THC strain. If you don’t mind a little euphoria, its balanced cannabinoid profile can relieve your anxiety jitters.
- ACDC: If you’re trying out cannabis for the first time or hate feeling high, consider ACDC. This CBD-dominant strain only contains THC traces. It uses the power of CBD to drive off anxiety and leave you with a clear state of mind.
- Granddaddy Purple: This is a THC dominant strain that offers both physical and mental relaxation. It is suitable for those who don’t mind feeling high.
- Jack Herer: Jack Herer is another THC-dominant strain with anxiety-relief properties. It lifts your mood without affecting your physical energy.
- Canna-Tsu: Canna-Tsu has a balanced cannabinoid profile. The strain delivers gentle effects while eliminating your anxiety symptoms.
- Jillybean: This THC-dominant strain offers the best energy and soothing effects. It relieves all the tension in your body.
- Remedy: As the name implies, a few puffs of this CBD strain calm down your anxiety flare-ups without you worrying about getting stoned.
- Purple Urkle: When troubled with racing thoughts, the purple Urkle can lift off your worries while easing you into a deep sleep. It is perfect for use just before bedtime, as it is a THC-dominant strain.
Cannabis Interactions With Anti-anxiety Medication
You’ve probably heard of potentiators. These are drugs, chemicals, or substances that intensify the effects of other substances. If you’ve been using an anti-anxiety prescription, you might wonder if cannabis use can add to its anxiety-relieving effects.
The available scientific research and patient anecdotes reveal that some anxiety prescriptions are riskier than others when combined with marijuana. The most common anxiety prescriptions are SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These include Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, and Celexa. There are few patients’ reports on the adverse interactions between marijuana and these anxiety prescriptions. The same applies to norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs) such as Forfivo, Aplenzin, and Wellbutrin.
Moreover, other prescriptions require extreme caution because their interaction with marijuana may intensify negative side effects, including blood pressure and pounding heart rate. These include:
- Tricyclic antidepressants
Tips for Safe Marijuana Use
Perhaps you want to try out cannabis to lift your tension and anxiety but are worried about potential adverse effects? If so, here are a few things you should do to mitigate the potential for cannabis to worsen your feelings of anxiety.
- Go slow: Always start with a low THC dose. A higher THC dose will activate the GABA neurotransmitter, which induces anxiety symptoms. Besides that, you should also give your starting dose time to work before increasing it in small increments.
- Choose CBD products over THC: As already mentioned, higher doses of THC exacerbate anxiety symptoms. In contrast, CBD dominant products produce no psychoactive effects. If you can’t find a pure CBD product, go for one with a higher percentage of CBD to THC. The CBD will help combat the undesired effects of THC while driving away anxiety symptoms.
- Buy cannabis products from a dispensary: The cannabis market is awash with unscrupulous vendors who offer substandard products. A good rule is to buy cannabis products with lab testing reports. This is solid proof of the quality of the product. The dispensary’s budtenders may also guide you on the best cannabis product based on your anxiety symptoms.
- Avoid interactions: Cannabis may reduce the effectiveness of some anxiety prescriptions. In some cases, it may worsen the anxiety symptoms, leaving you even more distressed. That said, it is crucial to first speak with your doctor before mixing cannabis and other anxiety medications. If you’re working with a therapist, also loop them in. They can provide additional guidance and assess how well it’s combating your nervous symptoms.
The Bottom Line
Marijuana is a tool and not a cure for your anxiety disorder. Just like anxiety prescriptions, marijuana helps to dull anxiety symptoms for the short term, allowing you to have a good quality of life.
The endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in modulating emotional responses like anxiety and fear. The two main compounds in marijuana, CBD and THC, have varying effects on anxiety. THC on its own appears to reduce anxiety at lower doses and exacerbate anxiety at higher doses. In contrast, pure CBD eases symptoms of anxiety, whether at low or higher doses.
If you opt to try marijuana, the inhalation method produces immediate relief from anxiety symptoms but will wear off after a short while. Meanwhile, edibles will take some time to kick in but will produce lasting effects for several hours. The effects of sublingual administration kick in faster than edibles and allow for precise cannabis dosing.