How Cannabis is Emerging as an Alternative to Anxiety Medications
In an age of 24/7 digital distractions, social media obsession, and hyperconnectivity, anxiety levels are skyrocketing. A 2018 survey published by Science Alert reported that 40 percent of respondents felt more anxious than they did a year ago.
Xanax is one of the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety and panic attack sufferers, but what if someone would rather not pop a pill to relax?
As anxiety has been cited among the top 5 reasons for using medical marijuana in North America, could cannabis be a viable alternative or complement to prescription anxiety medication?
Scientific research on cannabis for anxiety, as with many other ailments and medical marijuana, has been limited, and the preliminary results have been mixed.
Susan A. Stoner's 2017 scientific review for the University of Washington discussed how cannabis in modest amounts lowered anxiety. Stoner, a licensed clinical psychologist who is a research consultant for the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute noted that higher amounts of THC had the opposite effect and increased anxiety, while CBD provided more consistent benefits.
Similarly, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that cannabis significantly lowered anxiety levels and stress and depression in the short-term. Researchers noted that women experienced a greater reduction in anxiety than men in the short-term; long-term, though, cannabis was found to exacerbate depression but not anxiety or stress.
Other studies, however, have retrieved less encouraging results and more cautious recommendations. A 2012 scientific literature review published in Recent Patents on CNS Drug Discovery concluded that: “While studies on the biological determinants of different responses to cannabis are still at their preliminary stages, advances in this area may be essential to allow a personalized approach for the employment of cannabinoid-based therapies in anxiety and mood disorders.”
A more recent meta-analysis of 31 separate studies, published in 2014 in BioMed Central Psychiatry, found that there was a positive relationship between cannabis use and anxiety. This finding was drawn from population samples of 10 countries, and researchers recommended a more thorough assessment of cannabis before it is prescribed to individuals with anxiety disorders.
There is often a divide between scientific research and patient experiences, and cannabis as a treatment option for anxiety is no exception.
In her article for Scary Mommy, a popular parenting blog, Alyssa McBryant shared how cannabis delivered through a vape pen, which she prefers to her prescribed Xanax and Klonopin, has helped soothe her anxieties as a busy mother.
“This is genetically modified, immaculately bred, medical marijuana. Its genealogy is better documented than mine. And it's been bred for specific traits: as a mood stabilizer and enhancer, as a soporific.” McBryant also claimed that cannabis has eliminated her insomnia and reduced her depression.
Another woman, profiled by a Forbes contributor, experienced such dramatic results using cannabis for anxiety that she founded Mondo Meds, which produces a powdered form of medical marijuana. Emily O'Brien explained part of her motivation for founding the company: “Not least because pharmaceutical anxiety medication is being prescribed at a higher and higher rate every year, and the side effects are incredibly detrimental and could even lead to death.”
A2016 New York Times article corroborated O'Brien's claim. Still, in conjunction with cannabis use, O'Brien suggested other lifestyle modifications to temper anxiety: “I'd recommend people look to physical activities in addition to microdosing cannabis to naturally alleviate anxiety. Dancing, lifting weights, walking outdoors, yoga, or just screaming and shouting.
“Just get it out! It's important to tackle lifestyle on a holistic basis rather than just using a product as a Band-Aid.”
What the Experts Say
Anxiety.org asserted in a 2017 article that “marijuana abuse may inhibit response to the reward chemical dopamine, and brings to light what may be an increased risk for depression and anxiety associated with chronic abuse of the drug.”
Certainly, overuse of medical marijuana or any substance including prescription medication, could lead to problems, but what about the short-term use that has shown to be beneficial in certain studies?
Dr. Jeremy Spiegel has a question of his own on this topic: can a joint a day keep the psychiatrist away?
“It's true, anecdotal evidence for marijuana's benefit in psychiatric disorders is by itself useful to guide us to try using it for intractable disorders, that is, when conventional treatments have already been tried but were inadequate in their effectiveness,” Spiegel, who has medical practices in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York, wrote in a 2013 article published in Psychology Today. “But as more and more scientific evidence of marijuana's benefits emerges, the reasonable and judicious clinician can feel increasingly comfortable utilizing this medication for very specific psychiatric disorders, either adjunctively — as an add on therapy — or as sole treatment.”
Citing several scientific studies, Spiegel promoted medical marijuana as a treatment for anxiety, but he did not address the issue of short-term benefits versus long-term challenges.
Other physicians, such as Dr. Bonni Goldstein, medical director of Canna-Centers Wellness & Education in Lawndale, California, and medical adviser to Weedmaps, have observed exceptional long-term results with hundreds of anxiety patients who have been treated with cannabis medicine.
The Bottom Line
Cannabinoid treatment, as part of a healthful lifestyle that includes other efforts to reduce stress, such as meditation, diet, and regular exercise, can reduce anxiety in some people, particularly when medically supervised by a knowledgeable physician.