Does Marijuana Help With Anxiety Or Is This A Myth We’re Just Hoping is True?

marijuana and anxiety

Marijuana and anxiety: Advice for parents and caregivers 

As an anxiety clinician, I have witnessed firsthand what the research shows: anxiety rates are rising. As such, I am often approached by people looking for new ways to manage their worries. As marijuana legalization has gained traction throughout the US, along with hopes for its untapped potential, people commonly ask me about marijuana and anxiety, anxious to know if marijuana can help. 

It’s a modern question with a complicated answer. 

Since 1996, the trend of states legalizing marijuana has brought with it many hopes and promises of novel ways to treat everything from pain, to stress, to anxiety. Searching online for “weed for anxiety” will lead you down a path of options that range from the Wall Street Journal to how to get your medical marijuana card. There’s crack-pot advice and medical insight, much of which is confusing, contradictory and lacking in sufficient evidence and facts.

Leaving consumers with questions like, “if cannabis is well-known to trigger relaxation, and a sense of calm. Why wouldn’t it help with anxiety too?”

Sadly, the research suggests just the opposite, especially for young people. 

The New York Times recently published a thought provoking article on the many dangers of marijuana, reporting the rise in psychosis, GI issues, and dependency in users, much of which is being attributed to the increased levels of THC found in today’s readily available marijuana supply.

It’s important to note that one of the biggest changes in marijuana over the past 25 years is the increase in THC. Per Very Well Mind, “THC stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9-THC). It is a cannabinoid molecule in marijuana (cannabis) that’s long been recognized as the main psychoactive ingredient—that is, the substance that causes people who use marijuana to feel high.”

According to one study from NIH, “The primary problem with the current available cannabis in dispensaries in Colorado is that the THC content is not like it used to be. Prior to the 1990s it was less than 2%. In the 1990s it grew to 4%, and between 1995 and 2015 there has been a 212% increase in THC content in the marijuana flower. In 2017 the most popular strains found in dispensaries in Colorado had a range of THC content from 17–28%.”

This is where the arguments about marijuana as a cure (or salve) for anxiety fall apart. 

Research from the lab of Susan Stoner, PhD at the University of Washington in June 2017 notes the correlation of lower THC levels in marijuana consumption and reduced anxiety vs. higher anxiety with marijuana consumption with higher THC levels. Marijuana that has higher THC levels does not appear to reduce anxiety and can in fact, escalate anxiety.

Not to be confused with CBD – the non psychoactive component of cannabis – the real issue with the marijuana that’s on the streets lies in the high THC levels

What’s really going on with THC?

Cannabis and cannabinoid use has long been been linked to a risk of psychosis, social anxiety and suicidal thoughts, due to the halucinogenic components of THC. Despite the perception that cannabis is safe, the lack of regulation, and the demand for higher potency means the dosing and chemical makeup is unpredictable at best, and increasingly risky. Edibles and alternative methods of dosing make dosing even more opaque, adding to the hallucinogenic risks of THC. 

For teens in particular, the risks are high given a preference for edibles, often packaged in fruity youthful flavors. Because adolescent brains are still growing, they are “exquisitely vulnerable” to the impact of substances, especially those that stay in the body. THC can linger in the system, and can take several months of abstinence to clear the system depending on how regularly it’s used. This makes it even harder to get a handle on its overall impact, much less control it. 

Additionally, the overall appeal of marijuana to many kids is the feeling of being high. For kids with anxiety, the draw to a substance that allows them to feel less challenged by their thoughts and feelings is incredibly tempting. Scientifically speaking, the hallucinogenic part of THC is what makes you feel productive, calm and creative. 

But, it’s important to note that this is just a feeling – literally a hallucination – because you can’t execute on your creativity when you’re high. So not only it is not a solution to resolve anxiety, but the disonnet between feeling high and the reality of life can escalate anxiety and depression. The temporary reduction in feelings comes at a dangerous price of risking increased anxiety, depression, and other brain-based experiences like psychosis.   

For this reason (and because teens aren’t always honest about their use), the impact of cannabis can be tough to pinpoint, and more profound than expected. Everything from developmental challenges to early onset addiction can be triggered from regular cannabis use making the relationship between marijuana and anxiety particularly risky.

How much trouble is your kid really in when it comes to marijuana and anxiety?

Anxiety isn’t always obvious to parents. Anxiety symptoms often feather into other things that appear normal like moodiness, test anxiety, difficulty with friends etc. All things that can be explained under the guise of normal if you try.. 

Substance use also isn’t so obvious to parents. Many parents think “they’re just being kids”, “stretching your wings is normal” and “everyone acts out/blows off steam” without a clear sense of when the developmental norms edge into something more concerning. With cannabis being ubiquitous, orderless, and packaged to look like candy, electronics, or gum, it’s easy for kids to hide their substance use from even the most watchful parents. 

Layer on the perception of “safety” around cannabis and the fact that an anxious teen will try anything to get relief, there is a perfect storm brewing for kids and adults around cannabis use.

What can you do?

If you notice your child acting oddly, understand that getting them off cannabis “becomes an emergency,” according to Dr. Sharon Levy, the director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children’s Hospital in an interview with the NYTimes. “Because maybe, just maybe they’ll clear up, and we’re preventing someone from developing a lifelong psychiatric disorder.”

If your kid is using cannabis to manage anxiety, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are they acting oddly?
  2. Is there evidence of paraphernalia – vaping pens, gummy containers, or other small things that are unfamiliar in your teen’s purse, back pack, or bedroom?
  3. Are your child’s appetite or sleep patterns irregular? Specifically, have they changed to become irregular?
  4. Is your child spending more time playing video games or on their phone doing mindless things?
  5. Has your child talked about their friends using cannabis?
  6. Has your kid talked about how safe cannabis is?

If after considering these questions you’re left with an overwhelming sense that your child is likely using or at risk of using, here’s how to approach next steps and encouraging your child to stop using altogether.

  1. Ask your child how they are doing, and what is going on. Make it as safe as possible for them to tell you what they are doing. 
  2. Consult your pediatrician and share your concerns. By gaining an advocate in your family doctor you will find extra resources to help with the next few steps.
  3. If your child is curious, use the moment to educate and empower them with science. Start by downloading some of the studies cited in this piece and others from reputable sources and read them together. Education is power. Science helps take the conflict out of the conversation so you both can be on the same page.
  4. Discuss directly with your child ending using marijuana (and other substances) completely. Listen for their concerns and listen for opportunities to address the issues underlying their usage. 
  5. If this proves challenging or hurdles seem too high, those are signals it is time to consider therapy. A professional trained in helping teens can be a powerful tool in helping your kid, and your family, back on track and empowered to make smart choices in their life.

The facts are that it’s a fallacy that marijuana can cure anxiety. It can’t. 

As a parent, if you’re worried about your teen and their drug usage, it’s important to act as soon as you can. Many people struggle with anxiety, the World Health Organization lists it as one of their top global concerns, and everyone feels anxiety from time to time. There is no harm if your child has anxiety too. But, you and your child have to get ahead of it. 

Marijuana and anxiety is sadly not what has been hoped for, as few substances are. Letting your child cope with their worries with substances can start them down a path that’s unrecoverable. And neither they nor you want that, no matter how much they protest. Know that your kid needs you, and you can handle being there for them. 

The goal for you both is to understand what is going on, so you both can deal with anxiety productively, and sober. Anxiety isn’t the enemy. Helping your child learn how to face and use their anxiety productively is the goal. Then, and only then, will they be free to create the life they want and deserve. 

 

Looking for more help with balancing anxiety? Check out my book Hack Your Anxiety and the digital tools I’ve developed to expand the book’s concepts here, or sign up for my free mini e-course here.

Photo by Richard T on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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