Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety from time to time. In fact, anxiety is a normal response that is essential to human survival — it motivates us and helps us deal with potential health and safety threats.
However, for people who have anxiety disorders, these feelings of worry and fear are overwhelming and life-altering. These feelings often occur in response to everyday events but can become so severe that they cause panic attacks and interfere with relationships, work, and daily activities. Sometimes, these feelings of dread, worry or fear can be so strong that they cause people to avoid certain places and situations.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. ADAA estimates that anxiety disorders affect 40 million American adults each year (or 18.1 percent of the population).
Although the causes of anxiety disorders aren’t fully understood, there is evidence that shows they may result from a combination of brain chemistry, genetic traits, and personality. Researchers also believe that a traumatic or stressful life event can trigger some anxiety disorders. Types of anxiety disorders include:
Anxiety disorders are usually treated with prescription medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a type of “talk therapy.” There are different types of drugs that can be used to treat anxiety disorders, but popular options include antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, and sedatives such as Xanax, Valium, or Ativan.
These medications work well for many people, but they have some limitations and are not for everyone. Some people experience bothersome side effects or see little or no improvement in their anxiety symptoms. Sedatives can be addictive, and SSRIs can take 4-6 weeks to work. There is also some uncertainty regarding the long-term effects of sedative and SSRI use.
Research has shown that people who suffer from an anxiety disorder may benefit from using cannabidiol, or CBD, to help manage their symptoms. CBD is a cannabinoid molecule produced by cannabis. Unlike THC, which is the most common cannabinoid, CBD is non-intoxicating. It also has significant pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties, which offer a wide range of possible medicinal applications.
Most research on CBD and anxiety has been based on animal studies so far, but results show that CBD and SSRIs may have similar effects on the brain. One study, conducted on mice exposed to chronic stress, showed that both CBD and SSRIs promote a process called neurogenesis, or regeneration of neurons, in a part of the brain called the hippocampus that has been linked to depression. Another animal study suggested that CBD worked faster than SSRIs to target the serotonin system in the brain and reduce anxiety.
Anecdotal evidence that CBD helps to relieve anxiety symptoms is strong. Users report that CBD takes effect quickly, has long-lasting anti-anxiety effects and even promotes relaxation and better-quality sleep — all with few side effects.
In a 2017 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged that CBD might offer a range of therapeutic benefits for people who have anxiety disorders. In addition to potentially reducing muscle tension, restlessness, fatigue and problems with concentration, the report stated that CBD might also help improve social interactions and reduce social anxiety.
For example, in one small study conducted in Brazil, human patients who experienced generalized social anxiety reported a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms after consuming CBD. Brain scans of the patients showed blood flow patterns that indicated reduced anxiety.
Another small study showed that human patients who had social anxiety disorder not only reported less anxiety during a simulated public speaking test, but also had lower heart rates and blood pressure after consuming CBD.
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that causes flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, trouble coping with stress and severe anxiety after a traumatic experience. Although this type of anxiety disorder is most common in war veterans, it can affect any child or adult who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.
People who have PTSD are usually treated with psychotherapy and antidepressant medications. Preclinical studies show that CBD has potential as a treatment for anxiety disorders when it is administered acutely, or on an “as-needed” basis. CBD’s effectiveness in acute situations could make it ideal for treatment of PTSD and PD symptoms, which can occur suddenly in response to a range of triggers.
In a clinical trial set to begin in late 2018, researchers plan to study whether CBD is effective in treating alcohol use disorder in individuals with PTSD. The study will determine whether CBD reduces alcohol drinking and/or improves PTSD symptoms.Although more research is needed to determine the long-term effects, safety, dosing recommendations and anxiety disorder treatment potential of CBD, many people with severe anxiety disorders are currently using CBD in place of — or in addition to — anxiety medications and psychotherapy to improve their quality of life.