As we mature, we do our best to face whatever life sends our way with the right mindset. Even the most adaptive individuals, however, have at least one sensitive factor that triggers a state of anxiety. Starting with muscle tension and stress headaches, an anxiety response increases your heart rate, causes your palms to sweat, and forces negative thoughts to swim through your head.
We’ve learned a lot about human neurophysiology over the last few decades, and it’s clear that certain natural substances can either prepare us better for anxiety or stop anxiety attacks after they’ve already begun. Some people use THC for anxiety, and others use CBD. Which cannabinoid soothes the symptoms of anxiety the best, and what are the pros and cons of using CBD vs. THC for anxiety?
What causes anxiety?
We all know what anxiety feels like. The exact causes of anxiety are, however, somewhat more difficult to elucidate. Before we discuss the differences between CBD and THC for anxiety, we’ll need to uncover the primary approaches to exploring the underlying causes of anxious responses.
Psychological causes of anxiety
There are a few psychological factors that can make you predisposed to anxious responses:
- Genetic predispositions
- Buildup of stress over time
- Comorbidity with other psychological conditions
- Being ill or suffering from bodily dysfunctions
For most people, the primary psychological factor that causes anxiety is our memories of the past. The things that have happened to you and the behavior of people close to you forms your psyche, and overcoming the conditioned responses that arise from your experiences entails a painstaking, long-term process of learning to relax and let go. Daily stresses and setbacks in life can exacerbate latent predispositions to anxiety, and taking measures to balance yourself and follow a healthy lifestyle gradually decreases your likelihood to experience anxious reactions.
Biochemical causes of anxiety
From a chemical perspective, anxiety is caused by neurotransmitter imbalances in your brain. These chemical disharmonies can be inherent, or they can develop over time in response to your experiences. Some of the neurotransmitters that are directly involved in anxious responses include:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
While serotonin, dopamine, and GABA imbalances can predispose your neurochemistry to anxious responses, the primary biochemical trigger for the common physiological symptoms of anxiety is norepinephrine. Also known as adrenaline, norepinephrine triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response, leading to increased heart rate, sweating, panic, and other common symptoms of anxiety.
Does THC help with anxiety?
The anti-anxiety potential of THC varies depending on the amount of this cannabinoid you ingest. According to researchers at the University of Washington (UW), THC can reduce anxiety at very low doses, but it increases anxiety at high doses.
When provided with a low dose of 7.5mg THC, study participants experienced reduced levels of anxiety as measured by a popular psychological stress test. However, a slightly larger THC dose of 12.5mg caused increased levels of anxiety in participants.
For context, a gram of marijuana containing 20% THC includes 200mg of this intoxicating cannabinoid. To target the 7.5mg dose that researchers found to be effective for anxiety, you would need to use around 1/26th of a gram of THC-rich marijuana, which is the equivalent of a single small puff.
Ingesting THC in any higher concentrations may run counter to the goal of reducing anxiety. Nonetheless, the UW researchers note that “[r]elaxation or tension reduction is commonly identified as a marijuana use motive,” and it’s simply common sense that most marijuana users will ingest more than a single small puff at a time.
Does CBD help with anxiety?
The anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of CBD have been tested at a variety of doses. Doses of CBD as high as 1,500mg have been shown to be safe for human consumption, and unlike THC, CBD does not have any major side effects.
No available research indicates that CBD has the potential to increase anxiety levels. Cannabis scientists continue to research the anti-anxiety effects of CBD, and in the near future, it’s likely that we’ll be able to draw firm conclusions regarding the anxiolytic properties of this non-intoxicating cannabinoid.
Side effects of THC for anxiety
There are a variety of drawbacks to using THC for anxiety. While the intoxicating effects of THC may temporarily cover up any anxiety you may be immediately feeling, it’s easy to develop a tolerance to THC that forces you to use higher concentrations of this intoxicating cannabinoid to experience the same effects.
Most psychoactive substances cause tolerances. This type of adaptation to a substance can become dangerous, however, when the tolerated substance has addictive properties. Prolonged THC use can cause a variety of mental changes including irritability and aggression that becomes more pronounced when an addicted individual’s access to THC is threatened.
The user can become convinced that they need THC to combat their anxiety, and the general impression that THC is safer than prescription anxiety drugs like Xanax can lead to a cavalier attitude regarding THC use. While it’s entirely possible for individuals who are not prone to addiction to ingest THC on a daily basis for years at a time, using this intoxicating, addictive substance specifically to combat anxiety cannot be considered safe or recommended.
Side effects of CBD for anxiety
CBD is very different from THC in a variety of ways. Even if it very rarely causes overdose, THC becomes toxic at relatively low concentrations. CBD, on the other hand, has a remarkably high toxicity threshold.
Unlike THC, CBD does not cause intoxication. While this cannabinoid is mildly psychoactive, it commonly provides a feeling of mild relaxation, and it does not cause anxiety, hallucinations, or any of the other common side effects of THC.
Perhaps most importantly for sufferers of chronic anxiety, CBD does not appear to be habit-forming. The euphoric intoxication imparted by THC can sometimes provide anxiety sufferers with temporary relief from their symptoms. This sense of intoxication is not, however, inherently anxiolytic, and it primarily consists of a surge of dopamine that has the potential to further unbalance an individual’s neurochemistry over time.
The lack of addiction potential associated with CBD is likely attributable to this cannabinoid’s lack of euphoric effects. While THC provides a sensation of intoxication by stimulating your brain’s CB1 receptors, CBD serves as a mild antagonist at these receptors, meaning that it subtly impedes their activation.
CBD has potent agonistic (activating) activity at the 5-HT1A neuroreceptors, however, which regulate the production and uptake of serotonin throughout your nervous system. Put simply, dopamine provides a sensation of euphoria or detachment from reality. Serotonin, on the other hand, provides a sensation of deep contentment and relaxation, making this neurotransmitter more useful for the reduction of anxiety symptoms.
Is CBD or THC better for anxiety?
THC should never be used as a remedy for anxiety. Adults with no predisposition toward substance abuse should feel free to use THC as a recreational drug. This intoxicating cannabinoid is only valid as a medicine, however, within certain strict parameters, and treating anxiety is simply something that THC does not do.
CBD, on the other hand, is being intensively researched as a potential anxiety treatment. With no toxicity, psychosis, or addiction potential, CBD could end up being proven an ideal alternative to THC for anxiety sufferers who believe in the healing power of cannabis. Due to the intense effects and fast activation times provided by these ingestion methods, smoking CBD flower or using a CBD vape cartridge may be the best way to use CBD for anxiety.