Up until now, the media has painted a certain picture of cannabis and all its derivatives: one where it provides relief from stress and anxiety, and the other where smoking up being the answer, much like a glass of wine, to the end of a stressful day at work. But is cannabis actually that effective at reducing anxiety? What more should you know about cannabis and mental illness?
Richard Feynman has been popularly quoted saying that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you probably don’t. And much like quantum physics, the same can probably be said about cannabis. It is not a single substance but contains more than 500 chemical constituents.
Cannabis is Complex
More than 100 of these chemicals are cannabinoids, which affect the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in the body. As a result, varying combinations of cannabis dosages, as well as their unique THC and CBD levels, will have varying effects on physiological and psychological processes.
With this inherent complexity comes a promising potential for medicinal uses for many ailments. However, there is a gap between evidence-based research and the hype surrounding cannabis. The worry is particularly true with regard to mental health, where cannabis garnered a lot of hype as an effective treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety amongst others.
Like many things in life, the situation isn’t black and white, and requires meaningful discussion about the potential risks and benefits with careful consideration of the scientific literature we currently have on cannabis and its components.
For starters, with regards to depression, the research is clear that the ECS system is closely related to mood modulation. We know that the cannabinoids found in weed interact with this system. Anecdotally people may sense this and tell you that cannabis helps with their depressive symptoms. However, there isn’t scientific literature to support this fact yet. In fact, some of the literature suggests that the use of the cannabis plant and some of its cannabinoids can sometimes worsen depressive symptoms. At the end of the day, the findings are anything but conclusive.
THC and CBD
Currently, a lot of studies allude to the act that THC the, psychoactive cannabinoid contained in the cannabis plant may worsen anxious thoughts or depressive episodes, while the research is quite clear that CBD, the non-psychoactive portion, can have extremely positive anxiolytic and antipsychotic properties. Strains that have a higher CBD to THC ratio are generally better at producing the calming effects users may look for when looking to reduce anxiety.
Like many things, there are risks involved and some pre-existing conditions can also hold weight as to whether the use of cannabis for a particular person will be helpful or harmful.
Firstly, the age at which you first begin using. Using cannabis during key stages of brain development, such as before the age of 18, can impact synaptic pruning, which is when old neural connections ate deleted, as well as the development of white matter, which, similar to grey matter, is responsible for signal transmitting in the brain.
The second risk factor is the patterns of use. Frequency, dose and duration all play a part especially if you’re using more than once weekly.
From a psychological perspective, it is important to consider what the motive behind turning to cannabis for mental illness as a treatment option is. Many users turn to it for the mind-altering experience they get from THC, which may allow them to use the substance to escape unpleasant emotions. It can be a relieving experience insofar as it will almost immediately take away unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions.
Evidence-based psychology and therapy treatments generally aim to provide people with tools to handle these unpleasant emotions in a more effective way by providing healthy coping strategies.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a traditional therapy treatment that involves helping people deal with overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. CBT practitioners show you how to change negative thinking patterns.
If cannabis is being used to avoid negative emotions or dealing with them, it may worsen a person’s symptoms. Repeated temporary relief from psychiatric symptoms runs counterintuitively to what the goal of therapy is. However, in terms of stimulating appetite for eating disorder patients, cannabis can have positive effects.
Friend and Foe
Cannabis can be both a friend and an enemy to someone suffering from mental illness. It the goal is to use it as part of a therapy plan, there is an ethical imperative to develop this plan in collaboration with a treatment team who practice evidence-based medicine. Self-medicating can result in worsening