The complex relationship between cannabis and anxiety has been well documented, with some sufferers reporting that the drug helps them to relax into the present moment and others saying it has a tendency to exacerbate their symptoms by fuelling nervous thoughts.
For the first time ever, however, a study has found that routine cannabis use may actually make a person less likely to experience anxiety over time – even when sober.
The study, which was published in the medical journal Psychopharmacology, found that people who consumed cannabis every day or almost every day had a blunted stress reaction when exposed to a high-stress situation following a spell of cannabis abstinence.
The research involved 40 people who had consumed cannabis routinely over the last year and 42 people who had consumed it no more than 10 times in their lives and not at all in the last year. All the participants abstained from consuming cannabis from 12 to 18 hours before the study.
While non-cannabis users in the study reported feeling anxious and experienced higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when exposed to stress, cannabis users reported lower levels of anxiety and their cortisol levels stayed the same as ever.
“Based on our findings, the potential effects of cannabis on stress do appear to extend beyond the period of intoxication,” study co-author Dr. Carrie Cuttler of Washington State University told Leafly.
That said, Cuttler added: “we’re not yet comfortable saying whether that muted stress response is a good thing or a bad thing.”
More research is needed to determine whether lowered cortisol response in cannabis users is therapeutic or detrimental in the long term when it comes to anxiety treatment, said Cuttler.
That said, the prescription drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders aren’t exactly without peril. Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Klonopin are often prescribed for short-term treatment of anxiety and panic attacks, and their side effects can include fatigue, confusion, and disorientation. Moreover, tolerance and dependency can develop quite rapidly.
Anxiety drugs prescribed for long-term relief from anxiety – think selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft – can come with insomnia, drowsiness, headaches, low libido, and increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
Cannabis is often used for anxiety issues, but little research has been done on its potential due to federal prohibition. Cuttler intends to repeat the study featuring a longer period of cannabis abstinence, with hopes of one day replicating the study with rats.
“One of the limitations of this research is that we can’t ethically manipulate who uses cannabis daily and who does not,” Cuttler said. “So while our research indicates that they have a blunted stress response, it could be that people who are already less prone to stress are also more prone to being chronic cannabis users. With rats, we can manipulate both stress and cannabis.”