For Meghan O’Dea, anxiety manifests as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a loss of energy and appetite. Repetitive and intrusive thoughts, she told Civilized, such as “everybody hates me,” or self-criticism over personal or professional shortcomings can get in the way of enjoying life. Occasionally, she even has debilitating panic attacks — some of which last days — that can make it difficult to carry on with her normal responsibilities.
An estimated 40 million Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental illness in the U.S. Anxiety is attributed to factors like genetics, personal history, stressful life events, as well as chemical imbalances in the brain.
O’Dea started using Xanax in her early to mid 20s to help with these symptoms, and while she found the pharmaceutical moderately helpful for several years, she was never completely at ease with using it regularly because of its reputation for causing addiction and its negative interactions with alcohol. “Wine tastings and craft beer with the girls were a big part of my social life at the time,” she said. Fearing the consequences of excessive sedation, respiratory failure, or loss of consciousness that come from mixing the two drugs, O'Dea said, “Xanax just gave me something else to worry about.”
At the beginning of last year, the 32-year-old moved to Portland, Oregon from Tennessee. While she wasn’t a stranger to cannabis, prohibition in her home state made it hard to rely on it to address anxiety. But today, she appreciates the wide availability of strains and products that she can access locally; through exploring the market, she’s found what works. “I know exactly what strains to go for, and I know all about edibles versus flower versus oils,” O'Dea said. Even when she still experiences anxiety or panic attacks, she knows how to successfully reliever her symptoms. “I felt empowered and able to take control of my mental health using cannabis in a way that I never felt empowered taking typical pharmaceuticals,” she said.
Civilized asked Dr. Mandeep Singh, a psychiatrist at Apollo Cannabis Clinics whether anxiety sufferers can hope to eliminate Xanax, a benzodiazepine or “benzo”, with medical cannabis. “One word,” he said. “Definitely.” Xanax should not be a long-term anxiety solution, he explained, because of the myriad problems associated with it. It takes effect quickly, and wears off quickly, too — which can lead patients to take another dose in order to keep their relief going. Dr. Singh said that this fact precipitates, “a cycle of mini-withdrawals in between doses, and over time, it can result in addiction.” He described unpleasant symptoms like shaking and sweating, or — less common, but life threatening — seizures. “Cannabis can absolutely replace Xanax use,” Dr. Singh said, “without the dangers of physical dependence and withdrawal.”
Dr. Singh said that products rich in CBD are often most effective, though some amount of THC can help, too. He recommends vaporizing high-CBD flower when quick relief is necessary, but adds that edible oils and capsules — while taking longer to affect the user — will yield more prolonged help. Like most things cannabis, Dr. Singh emphasizes that each person’s response will vary, so working with a psychiatrist or other practitioner well-versed in cannabis medicine is important.
Angela Ardolino, founder of CBD Dog Health, has also found the cannabinoid extremely beneficial to relieve her own anxiety. Speaking to Civilized, she stressed the importance of using a full-spectrum CBD product that contains multiple cannabinoids and terpenes. Through the entourage effect, the plant's complete profile of chemicals work together to help each other function optimally — and for many people, that works to help them kick anxious symptoms. But dosages vary because everyone’s endocannabinoid system works a little differently, said Ardolino, who rescues animals,. “My mini Schnauzer needs more CBD than my Doberman.”
For everyday anxiety management, O’Dea takes CBD in the morning — especially, she adds, if she’s going to drink coffee that day. She also carries a CBD pen in her purse and will take a walk and vape break from work when she needs to quell anxiety. The fact that CBD is non-psychoactive makes it her immediate go-to remedy. “I don’t worry about CBD impacting my ability to be productive at work the way Xanax dulled my acuity,” she said. For after-work hours, indica edibles help O'Dea ease into her evening routine and get solid sleep.
When she needs immediate relief from intense anxiety symptoms, she’ll use Jack Herer, its cousin J 1, or any derivative of that particular strain. Even though Jack Herer is a sativa known to stimulate and uplift, it works well for O’Dea, who says she rarely has experienced any paranoia or other negative effects from using cannabis. “I had this gnarly anxiety attack, and it helped me get me back to my baseline faster,” she said.
For some people, a higher-THC strain like Jack Herer may not be effective for anxiety relief. If cannabis increases anxiety or paranoia, it probably means you’re consuming too much THC for your particular chemistry. Because everyone’s endocannabinoid system differs, keeping a consumption journal can be an invaluable tool to record what you’re using, how much, how often, and what the effects are.
How Does Cannabis Combat Anxiety?
Unsurprisingly, research is still in early stages. It’s possible that some people with anxiety have a naturally-occurring shortage of endocannabinoids, and that cannabis works to restore balance. O’Dea finds that cannabis slows her heart rate down, helps her muscles relax, and makes it easier to take a deep breath — all signs that her parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates what’s often called the “rest and digest mode” is becoming more active. “The act of pulling off a joint models that deep inhalation that is often recommend through yoga and meditation, and as a way to self-soothe," she said. "It’s like two anti-anxiety measures at once.”
O’Dea also finds that keeping CBD with her at all times has gone a long way toward alleviating anxiety because it’s a quick and effective remedy that’s not disruptive to her workday. She said she feels that cannabis, unlike Xanax, has helped her become more mindful and aware of her thoughts so that she can recognize and let go of the ones that aren’t helpful. “It helps me sift through and say, ‘oh that’s just an anxious thought—it’s not an immediate threat to my wellbeing’ and I can just let it float on.”
Unlike Xanax or alcohol, cannabis boosts O’Dea’s positive thinking. “I’m more likely to feel grateful for what I have, and that my life is in a good place,” she said. As of now, O’Dea has eliminated Xanax and alcohol from her routine and her life outside work. “Cannabis integrates so much more naturally into my social life," she said. "It’s something I can enjoy with my friends and use medicinally — it’s both.”