Does marijuana help with anxiety? Maybe, but reports are mixed
Research is scarce about how marijuana can affect anxiety symptoms like irritability, muscle tension, and excessive worrying. For some people, marijuana may even increase anxiety.
Here’s what experts know so far about how chemicals in marijuana affect the brain and why that may help, or enhance anxiety.
The uses of marijuana for anxiety
There are two main chemical compounds in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Both attach to specific receptors in the brain, which trigger the various sensations you feel. THC is the chemical that produces the high you experience when you use marijuana, while CBD has a more subtle, non-intoxicating effect.
Though some US states have legalized marijuana, there are still restrictions in place against using marijuana in medical research. Therefore, there’s limited scientific proof that marijuana can alleviate anxiety. But that hasn’t stopped people from using the drug to find relief.
A 2016 survey of medical marijuana users found that 58 percent of users say they use marijuana to treat their anxiety. And in a small 2012 study, two-thirds of college students with high social anxiety reported that they smoke marijuana to help them cope with social situations.
Given the lack of scientific research, it’s unclear what chemical in the marijuana plant may help with anxiety — whether it’s THC, CBD, a combination of both, or something else entirely.
But a 2015 review of 40 preliminary studies on CBD found that this chemical may play a key role. The researchers said they found encouraging, preliminary results that concentrated doses of CBD oil, when taken regularly, could be an effective treatment for a host of anxiety disorders including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
The drawbacks of marijuana for anxiety
Even if the restrictions on marijuana were lifted, and researchers could use it in their studies, there’s another problem.
Both anxiety disorders and marijuana sensations are individualized. So, marijuana may help one person with their anxiety but not another. Take the following example:
Someone with generalized anxiety disorder symptoms like difficulty sleeping may have a better reaction to marijuana than someone with panic disorder who fears losing control.
Even worse, using marijuana could enhance symptoms of anxiety for some people, says James Giordano, PhD, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center.
“Some are overly sensitive to the ‘activating’ effects of THC, and this can induce anxiety, rather than reduce or relieve it,” Giordano says.
Then, there’s the chance that smoking marijuana won’t reduce or enhance anxiety at all. That was the case for college students surveyed in a 2012 study who said they did not see a significant change in their anxiety after smoking.
The risks of using marijuana
Even if marijuana does help with your anxiety symptoms, it comes with risks to your physical health. For example, it can impair motor coordination and control.
“This could be problematic when driving, or engaging in tasks that require fine motor and coordination skills,” Giordano says.
Using marijuana has also been found to cause short-term memory loss in people who start smoking it in their teen years. Though, how it affects long-term memory is unclear.
Lastly, a 2018 review found evidence that smoking marijuana can increase the risk of heart issues like an irregular heartbeat — particularly in older age groups. Though, this may be a consequence of the act of smoking and not related to what is being smoked.
The bottom line
It’s difficult to say whether marijuana can help you, specifically, with anxiety.
If you do decide to try marijuana, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it to get a professional opinion, Giordano says.
If it’s a new experience, it’s best to start with a very small amount and to be in an environment that can give you support and assistance if needed.
Studying marijuana is restricted, but researchers have evidence that the CBD compound in marijuana may help treat many different anxiety disorders.