Anxiety is a very common sensation in our increasingly complicated world, and it’s OK to feel anxious.
However, when these feelings get more severe and start to manifest in very serious symptoms, you may have an anxiety disorder - something one in four Australians experience in their lifetime. There are many treatments available for anxiety disorders, one of which may be medicinal cannabis.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is our brain’s way of responding to potential threats. The sense of worry, unease, as well as the physical changes in our body (which we’ll talk more about below) can help us react better to problem situations. Everybody feels anxious at some point in their life, but sometimes those feelings persist or become particularly intense, which is where you may require treatment.
What’s going on inside the brain? In a way, anxiety is a holdover from the days of prehistoric humans. The sensation is an ancient response mechanism (fight or flight) which helped primitive humans survive. Evolved brains are great at thinking and developing tools for coping, but thinking takes time, which is why we have parts of the brain that react and get us to safety before we can think. Of course, this part of the brain still functions today – our amygdala and hypothalamus are wired to work together and react to situations before the outer cortex (our thinking brain) has time to process the information. Certain experiences can make our amygdala more sensitive, and because of this it may overreact to unthreatening situations. This can create a spiral effect that may lead to more anxiety in future, unless treated. Source 1, Source 2
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Anxiety can manifest itself in both mental and physical ways, including:
- Increased heart rate or feeling our heart pumping.
- Hot flushes in the face.
- Restlessness and worry.
- Feeling irritable, on edge.
- Muscle tension.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Whirlwind, uncontrollable thoughts.
- Shortness of breath.
Common anxiety disorders
Anxiety isn’t always just intense worry. Sometimes it can manifest in other ways, which we can categorise into different anxiety disorders.
- Generalised anxiety disorder: Intense worrying most days of the week, for many months.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Intense flashbacks and other reactions to extreme past events.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Unwanted, repetitive thoughts and sensations which can lead to repetitive, irrational behaviours.
- Extreme phobia: An intense fear and/or hatred towards a specific subject.
- Panic disorder: An intense anxiety that leads to panic attacks.
Common treatments for anxiety
Like other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders can usually be treated with a variety of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
- Therapy: Cognitive behavioural therapy has been known to help anxiety patients. This is where you learn to recognise false flags in the brain and control the anxiety response.
- Medication: This may include antidepressants and/or sleep medication to help you maintain the energy to treat anxiety with other means.
- Lifestyle changes: Exercise, diet and sleep all play a vital role in the body’s ability to heal and respond to anxious feelings.
Treating anxiety with medicinal cannabis
Medicinal cannabis has long held a reputation for helping with a variety of ailments, both mental and physical. Modern medicine is still exploring the real, provable benefits of cannabis for disorders such as anxiety, although preliminary evidence suggests it can be of real help.
Generalised anxiety disorder: Researchers in Canada surveyed a number of users of medicinal cannabis who had been diagnosed with anxiety, the majority of whom stated they had been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. Of those who completed the survey, almost all (92%) said they felt cannabis had improved their symptoms, and half had replaced their prescribed medication with medicinal cannabis. Source
PTSD: A number of papers and surveys have come out that offer a link between medicinal cannabis and aiding with the symptoms of PTSD. For example, another Canadian study noted that it helped armed forces personnel with their nightmares, and in an Israeli paper the researchers found evidence that it reduces PTSD hyperarousal symptoms. For more information, see our PTSD page.
OCD: One review of numerous works of scientific literature on the subject of treating OCD with medicinal cannabis found a number of studies suggesting it may have positive benefits. A synthetic cannabis compound, used alongside therapy, was more effective than either treatment alone. A particular study of patients with Tourretes found cannabis-based medicine might improve tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Source
Case study: In one case study, a 22 year old with severe OCD was treated with a variety of daily cannabis-based medicines. The researchers said that this man claimed he’d felt a “marked reduction” in obsessions and compulsions, not to mention improved relaxation, better sleep and better concentration at school. In a fantastic end to the story, he said the treatment had helped him get back on top of his life, rejoin sport, finish school and get a job. Source
Limitations of medicinal cannabis research
At the time of writing, research on medicinal cannabis is in its early stages. In medicine, we like to see a large number of studies conducted over long periods of time (with large numbers of participants) to make definitive statements about the efficacy of certain treatments. As yet, medicinal cannabis has not reached this stage, although there is a significant amount of preliminary research coming out that warrants more large-scale study. Patients should always talk to a health professional for advice on their unique requirements before making any decisions about their treatment options.