Drugs

How Marijuana Relieves (Or Exacerbates) Anxiety

smoking a joint
Though short-term use of marijuana has relaxing and anxiety-reducing effects, smoking weed could make panic disorders worse in people who have a proclivity to be anxious. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Plenty of rumors about marijuana’s ability to reduce anxiety persist: Some advocates believe that it can actually help people overcome stress. Other research, however, points to marijuana’s association with psychosis. So which one is it: Is marijuana anti-anxiety or is it anxiety-inducing?

In recent months, medical experts have been touting marijuana’s other medicinal effects: It has the potential to treat people with seizures, and now parents are arguing that their children, who may suffer from rare conditions that cause such life-threatening seizures, should be allowed the use of medical marijuana. These parents are known as the “mommy lobby.”

Other proponents of cannabis claim that it’s not as dangerous as alcohol, and that it’s a peaceful drug: It has a calming and relaxing effect that must be associated with decreased anxiety. A new study highlights the drug’s potential anxiety relief effects. Researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered cannabinoid receptors in an emotional hub of the brain in mice, which monitors anxiety as well as the flight-or-fight response. The authors state this is the first time that cannabinoid receptors have been found in the amygdala, a region of the brain, in a mouse model. It “could be highly important for understanding how cannabis exerts its behavioral effects,” Dr. Sachin Patel, senior author of the study, said in a press release.

"We know where the receptors are, we know their function, we know how these neurons make their own cannabinoids," Patel continues. "Now can we see how that system is affected by … stress and chronic (marijuana) use? It might fundamentally change our understanding of cellular communication in the amygdala."

But to what extent can marijuana actually help people who are struggling with anxiety? It does exert an effect on stress levels through the endocannabinoid system, which regulates pain and appetite. THC interacts with anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter, creating a happy, relaxed feeling, as well as sleepliness.

However, though the short-term effects may be relaxing, the long-term effects may not have an influence in affecting anxiety. Instead, long-term use of the drug can lead to memory loss and cognitive impairment.

Those who’ve experienced paranoia and panic attacks while smoking pot may be wondering what they’re doing wrong; shouldn’t the drug relieve their anxiety, too? But other studies have pointed to something totally different. Marijuana has been linked to psychosis and its ability to induce anxiety, rather than cure it. The marijuana-psychosis link has been explored quite a bit. One study found that weed had similar effects on people’s minds as schizophrenia — an inability to filter out certain stimuli, triggering hallucinations, and a sense of heightened significance (those "I just realized what the meaning of life is" moments).

Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether marijuana would have therapeutic effects on someone suffering from anxiety; every person reacts differently to it. One study found that people who had a tendency to have panic disorders were more likely to experience worse anxiety when smoking weed. And smoking a joint certainly won’t solve issues that are deep-rooted in your psyche that may best be solved with behavioral therapy.

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