Although some marijuana users say the drug has helped them get rid of anxiety, a increasing amount of scientific evidence is showing that long-term use might actually cause it.
Studies on marijuana’s chief psychoactive compound, THC, have been limited due to research bans. This lack of information has made it hard to say for sure if marijuana causes anxiety or not. However, recent studies are beginning to give us a better idea of why some people say habitual use of marijuana leads to chronic anxiety—while others claim the drug gets rid of it altogether.
The relationship between marijuana and anxiety is more than just a story people tell. Researchers measuring the stress response of individuals taking different doses of cannabis before a mock interview found that those using a low dose of THC seemed less stressed out than the control group, but those using enough to feel high were considerably more anxious.
THC and Fight-or-Flight
When THC enters the brain, it binds to cannabinoid receptors which are located in different areas throughout the brain. The same receptors that THC targets can be found in marijuana users’ amygdalas. When these bindings occur, they create “signals” that result in an emotional reaction. This is because the amygdala controls our fight-or-flight response and is considered to be an area of the brain where emotions are provoked–whether they be feeling fear or courage.
It’s not surprising that people who interviewed while high on marijuana might have ended up freaking out. Multiple studies have shown that marijuana slows response time, and indeed participants taking the higher dose had more long pauses during their interviews. These missteps could have keyed a “flight” response, amplified by the wealth of THC binding with receptors in the amygdala. This explains why misuse of cannabis can quickly escalate into full-blown panic and paranoia. For first-time users of high doses, this is especially true. They may feel perplexed about the changes they are experiencing and their brain’s fight-or-flight response will be more active than normal due to the quickened activity in that area.
THC’s observed low-dose anxiolytic effect is curious, especially because it occurs at a dosage where participants didn’t feel “high.” Even without a pronounced psychoactive effect, THC is still replicating the effects of our own endocannabinoid signalers deep inside the brain. The same cannabinoid receptors that might trigger a flight response when things seem to be going wrong instead provide a buffer against fear once your instincts determine you’re in a situation you can handle, nudging you towards success.
If you’re considering permanently banishing anxiety by microdosing marijuana, there’s something you should be aware of first. When you use it every day, your brain will eventually stop responding to THC as much. It’s like inviting friends over to a party–if you do it all the time, they’ll stop coming as often. However, if you constantly invite friends over, fewer and fewer will accept your invitations. If THC is used daily in an attempt to get cannabinoid receptors to produce a fear-buffering response, the results will gradually disappear. The good news is that receptor activity goes back to normal after not using for a while.
The reduction in cannabinoid receptors experienced by chronic users may have as much of an effect on anxiety levels as the active presence of THC. Eye-tracking tests showed that chronic users, when not under the influence of THC, reacted to stress-inducing stimuli in a similar way to those with anxiety disorders: they avoided them. It’s possible that the downregulation of cannabinoid receptors makes it harder for people to deal with anxiety-inducing situations, leading them to avoid those situations if they can. But it may also be that the same group of people who use marijuana daily are simply the ones who already tend to avoid anxious stimuli in general.
If cannabinoid receptors are less active in the amygdala, wouldn’t that then cause a muted anxiety response? This has been observed before with brain activity related to the release of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is better known as the “stress hormone” and it’s what makes you feel more stressed an hour before a project deadline or right after you realize you left your presentation at home. In order to stress test the participants, researchers had them submerge a hand in ice water and count backwards at 17 intervals. If they made any mistakes, the researcher would scold them. Unsurprisingly, cortisol levels rose significantly in the control group. However, those who frequently use cannabis showed no change in their cortisol levels during this test or when completing regular tasks.
The researchers conducting this study were unsure if the muted stress response from heavy users made them more or less vulnerable to anxiety later on. One way to interpret the findings is that chronic marijuana use leads to a reduction in cortisol, which correlates with reduced discomfort. Another possible explanation is that these results are consistent with the eye-tracking study conducted earlier, which showed that chronic users avoid mobilizing resources to deal with stressful situations.
What about Cannabidiol?
If you walk into a store that sells cannabidiol oil, also known as CBD, someone is likely to tell you about its anti-anxiety effects. Although research on CBD is even more limited than THC, there are already many studies on its use in treating panic and anxiety. These studies found that CBD lessened the effects of anxiety brought on by THC or fear during experiments. Even though CBD binds to cannabinoid receptors, experts think the anti-anxiety benefits are probably due to how it affects serotonin 1A receptors–the same ones that some medications for anxiety (like Buspirone) target.
The long-term effects of CBD are still unknown. For example, does it Eventaully lead to the body becoming desensitized to serotonin 1A receptors? Studies of other serotonin 1A agonists found that some treatments resulted in desenitization after chronic use, but not all. Also, It’s unclear if CBD continues to be effective at mitigating anxiety with continued daily use.
4 Best Marijuana Strains for Anxiety
It is always beneficial to go slowly – regardless of your past experience with cannabis. Different strains will affect your mind and body in diverse ways because of varying THC/CBD levels.
After talking with a professional, if you decide that cannabis might be the right treatment for your anxiety, experiment with different strains until you find the one that works best for you. Keep in mind that indica and sativa strains will affect people differently, so there is no general consensus on which type of strain is better for anxiety relief.
White Widow (Sativa Dominant Marijuana Hybrid)
White Widow is a hybrid of a South Indian indica and a South American sativa, with more sativa than indica. First becoming popular in North America after arriving from Amsterdam in the 1990s– where coffee-shops sold it– White Widow was one of the first famous European imports to reach Americans.
With a THC content of 18% to 25%, White Widow is perfect for those new to using marijuana. Its low CBD level of 0.2% won’t counteract the effects of the THC, promoting a full-bodied, ‘spacey’ high that’s popular among patients with anxiety or PTSD according to users. They say it provides the perfect blend of euphoria and stimulation and often take it as relief from mood disorders.
Sour OG (Hybrid Marijuana Strain)
If you’re looking for a relaxed and mellow strain that may help with stress and anxiety, Sour OG is an excellent choice. Thanks to its moderate THC levels of 13-17%, it’s less likely to cause side effects than other more potent strains. Sour OG is a balanced hybrid cross of OG Kush and Sour Diesel.
Sour OG is a favorite among those who use cannabis medicinally and recreationally. Some people love to smoke it in the afternoon because it relaxes them without making them tired. Sour OG has also won awards, including first prize in the ‘hybrid’ category in the 2011 High Times Medical Cannabis Cup.
Cherry Pie (Indica Dominant Marijuana Hybrid)
The indica dominant marijuana strain Cherry Pie is known for its ability to inspire creativity while maintaining a clear mind. It was created by cross-breeding Durban Poison and Granddaddy Purple, two very popular strains in their own right. Therefore, it is not surprising that Cherry Pie has become so popular itself. The THC level in this strain can vary quite a bit depending on the particular batch, anywhere from 13% to 23%.
The deep relaxation that Cherry Pie provides is perfect for managing stress, without making you feel drowsy or weighed down. Some users find it helpful in sparking creativity and motivation.
Grandaddy Purple (Indica Dominant Hybrid)
Ken Estes’ San Francisco lab has bred one of the world’s most popular marijuana strains: Granddaddy Purple, or GDP. A cross of Big Bud and Purple Urkle, this California native is beloved by those who need a stress-buster after a hard day.
This indica hybrid delivers potent psychoactive effects with cerebral euphoria and physical relaxation. With a THC content of around 23%, this is not a strain for beginners. However, if you are looking for full-body relaxation and a powerful high, it could be the right choice for you.
Researching the effects of marijuana on the mind is not easy. We still need more research and government cooperation to ease restrictions on study. However, our collective understanding of cannabis’ psychoactive effects continuing to grow lets us know that THC is capable of both clearing and creating anxiety. You can increase your odds in success by educating yourself on drug use, including moderate dosage. Long-term marijuana use decreases the body’s ability to deal with stress hormones, which might lead to long-term anxiety issues. CBD has shown potential in reducing anxiety in a way similar to drugs that are already used for treating anxiety disorders; however, its long-term effectiveness is not yet known. As always, be cautious when using cannabis and educate yourself on the risks involved so that you can ensure your experience is positive.