Though many people report smoking weed to treat their anxiety, the drug could actually make anxiety symptoms worse for some people.
Sharon Mccutcheon / EyeEm/Getty Images
  • Marijuana may help some people calm anxiety, but that doesn't mean it's a safe or effective treatment.
  • Marijuana can also contribute to anxiety symptoms, as well as other health risks and side effects.
  • Research is limited on marijuana for anxiety, so it's important to be cautious and check with your doctor before using it.
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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.

Does marijuana help with anxiety? What the research says

There are two main chemical compounds in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Related Article Module: The difference between CBD and THC and the health benefits of each

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 legalised 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:

The risks of using 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 individualised. So, marijuana may help one person with their anxiety but not another.

Someone with generalised 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.

Possible side effects

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.

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