Marijuana: Can It Reduce or Induce Anxiety?

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

There seem to be a lot of news stories about marijuana lately. The New York Times has reported recently that smoking marijuana does not harm your lungs. Another recent study suggests that smoking pot is not as bad as some originally thought it was for long-term effects on memory and cognition. In fact there is evidence to show that people who have used (not abused) cannabis have just as good or better mental functioning in middle-age than their counterparts who never smoked pot. Other literature contends that medicinal marijuana can help with conditions ranging from [autism] to Multiple Sclerosis. But what about using marijuana to treat anxiety related disorders including panic attacks? In this post we are going to explore the mixed answers to this complex question from science and the personal perspective.

In a 2008 Elle magazine article entitled, Pot Stirring, writer Patsy Eagan, describes her journey towards taking medicinal marijuana to treat her generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. She describes having debilitating anxiety episodes which increased in frequency to at least several times a day. Some were so bad that they kept her indoors. When she sought the help of a psychiatrist she found herself on Zoloft, a popular SSRI given to patients experiencing either depression or anxiety related disorders. The Zoloft did not work for her and instead had what is known as a paradoxical affect, this medication increased her panic and depression. Eagan stopped the medication and relied on talk therapy, eliminating caffeine, exercising and practicing mediation. Yet after awhile these remedies were not enough to help ease her anxiety symptoms.

In her article she came to this conclusion: "Calm came, I found, only from pot."

Eagan, who lives in California, received a note from her doctor recommending that she use medicinal marijuana on an as-needed basis. The trick for her was to find the right strain of cannabis to best alleviate her anxiety symptoms. In her article Eagan discusses how she would often have to defend her medicinal use of pot to others by citing studies which showed that the use of marijuana may decrease anxiety symptoms more rapidly than traditional SSRI's and with fewer side effects. She also found that if she did take a psycho tropic medication such as Lexapro, for example, that the medicinal cannabis would help with some of the prescription drug side effects such as fatigue.

I am sure if you go on most forums discussing the use of marijuana and anxiety you will find similar stories about a perceived reduction in anxiety due to the use of cannabis. Yet if you dig deeper into such forums you will also find the opposite reaction, where cannabis users describe how pot smoking seemed to exacerbate their anxiety or even cause panic attacks. Evidently the effects of smoking pot are extremely individualized to each user.

What does the scientific research say? Can marijuana really be used to treat anxiety or other mental disorders or are the risks greater than the gains?

One must consider that medicinal marijuana is not legal in most states. Currently only 16 states and DC have laws which allow some use of medicinal pot to treat certain conditions.

In the most recent study investigating the effects of marijuana use on anxiety, researchers have found that responses are extremely varied for each individual. In other words some people will experience a calming effect and a reduction in their anxiety symptoms while others will experience an elevation of anxiety and even paranoia.

British researchers including Dr. Sagnik Bhattacharyya, a researcher in the department of psychosis studies at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, studied the effects of the two main ingredients of marijuana on the brains of 15 young males. It seems that THC (delta-9-etetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) can have very different effects upon the brain. The patients included in this study were all healthy makes in their mid-twenties who reported that they smoked pot occasionally. The study authors had the subjects ingest either a capsule containing THC, CBD, or a placebo.

What they found as a result from visual-cognition tests and brain imaging was astounding.

The THC increased users paranoid and delusional thinking bordering on a psychotic reaction.

The effect of CBD was almost the polar opposite. This study suggests that this ingredient found in cannabis was associated with "appropriate responses to significant stimuli in the environment."

The lead researcher of this study concluded that CBD may have potential as a possible treatment for psychosis.

This study will be published in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. You may read more about this research from Health Day News.

We are most interested in your thoughts regarding this topic. Have you ever used marijuana to help ease your anxiety? Did it help or hurt? Do you feel that medicinal marijuana should be a treatment option for those who experience panic attacks or other anxiety disorders? Or are the risks far greater than any potential gains? Tell us your story. We want to hear from you

Anne Windermere
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Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."