The Ahhhhh Factor: Cannabis For Stress And Anxiety Relief
When it comes to cannabis and stress, there’s good news and bad news.
The Bad News
We’re being stalked by a couple of sneaky, silent killers – anxiety and stress. Chances are, if you’re an average human being, you are no stranger to the stranglehold of stress or anxiety. And you’re not alone. Anxious Americans have about 40 million buddies with whom to commiserate. Approximately 1 in 5 U.S. citizens have been diagnosed with some form of anxiety, currently making it the most common mental health issue.
Of those 40 million adults, only about a third are actually receiving treatment, and of those, about half are still experiencing symptoms. This means that many people wait years or even decades before seeking help, and when they finally do, they still aren’t experiencing complete relief. Those aren’t very good statistics.
I don’t have anxiety. I’m just super stressed out.
And here’s the other challenge: anxiety doesn’t usually happen all on its own. It tends to occur alongside other physical and emotional disorders including depression, IBS, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, sleep dysfunction, and ADD.
“Okay,” you say, “that all sounds really terrible. But I don’t have anxiety. I’m just super stressed out.”
I feel you. You’re still not alone, and you’re still not in the clear. You’ve got lots of buddies, and your friend list gets longer every day. About 75% of folks report experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month, and nearly half report that their stress has increased in the past year. That’s a lot of people.
Additionally, experiencing that much stress on a regular basis puts us at risk for a host of other issues. Chronic stress creates an excess of tension and constriction in our bodies, which leads to more frequent headaches, migraines, physical pain, breathing problems, and increases your risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.
Ugh. Are you feeling stressed out about your stress, yet?
Let’s take a deep breath together and just feel the weight of all this for a moment.
The Good News
Now, take another breath while I tell you this:
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cannabis can help.
Now, this might seem like a no-brainer to you. Anxiety is typically ranked in the top 5 reasons why people use cannabis, so it’s not like this is a secret. And the science is there to support it. While the number of clinical trials around cannabis and anxiety are sparse and often inconclusive (as opposed to the data we have around cannabis and chronic pain, for example), our understanding of cannabis pharmacology and energetics definitely points to its effectiveness with anxiety.
So, we know cannabis helps. But how, exactly, does it help?
The How And Why Of The High
THC: For starters, when THC (the compound in cannabis that gets you high) docks to the CB1 receptor (one place where it is active in our bodies), it acts like a volume knob on our excitatory neurotransmitters.
What that means is if your body is pumping out chemicals like glutamate or adrenaline to the point of causing excess muscle tension, spasm, and fight/flight responses, THC tells it to calm the heck back down.
Part of what cannabis is doing is saying, “Here is something you need to deal with, sweetie. And until you do, it’s not going anywhere.”
Overall, cannabis reduces inflammation in the body, and there is more research coming out all the time about how inflammation is both a cause and effect of stress and anxiety in the body.
Cannabis promotes relaxation and sleep — two things that are often missing when we’re stressed out and profoundly important when it comes to reducing chronic anxiety.
CBD: CBD, another compound in cannabis, activates both the GABA and serotonin receptors – two receptors that have a lot to do with our ability to calm down and feel safe. They are also often targeted by pharmaceuticals used to reduce depression and anxiety.
Terpenes: Many terpenes – the chemicals which make cannabis smell and taste like it does – are also profoundly calming and anxiety-reducing. Terpenes like linalool (also found in lavender) and myrcene (also found in hops) contribute a lot to the calming effect of the plant.
The Whole Plant: Overall, cannabis is an incredibly transformative plant that often encourages us to try on new ways of perceiving ourselves and the world. Ever smoked a bit and had big dreams of all the cool things you were going to do? Or noticed something about your cat you never had before? We can harness that energy to visualize the path to a different way of being, one where we’re not constantly hunching our shoulders and worrying about that deadline.
That Sticky Piece About THC
Our relationship to cannabis and anxiety is also complicated. For example, a lot of people (myself included) actually experience a fair amount of anxiety when they use high-THC cannabis. Which begs a couple of questions, including:
- So, what’s going on there?
- Even if cannabis does relieve your stress and anxiety, is it really enough by itself to get to the root of the issue?
Cannabis has what’s known as a biphasic effect, which means that a small dose is going to do something very different – sometimes the exact opposite – of what a large dose would do. So, frequently, a high dose of THC can actually cause a stress response and feelings of anxiety.
We also all have different levels of sensitivity to THC. The bowl that sends me hiding under the covers might be making you feel just dandy, and we’re still figuring out why and how people have such divergent reactions to the compound. It doesn’t seem tied to weight like other drugs are, so don’t assume that the bigger you are the more you need.
Rather, it seems to have to do with how toned our endocannabinoid system is, and, perhaps, where we have the highest density of receptors. For example, some scientists theorize that folks who have a more anxious response to THC have a higher concentration of receptors on their amygdalas – the part of our brain responsible for fear. And, of course, the more experienced you are with cannabis, the more you are likely able to tolerate (because you actually have less receptors for it overall).
No Matter Where You Go, There You Are
But there’s another factor here that I feel is important: cannabis isn’t a cure-all. It’s no substitute for a good therapist or coach, and it’s not going to do the hard work for you of processing your shit.
I’ve often found that the uncomfortable feelings which come up when folks have had too much THC are the same things that are running in the background of their not-high consciousness. Part of what cannabis is doing is saying, “Here is something you need to deal with, sweetie. And until you do, it’s not going anywhere.” Cannabis throws light where there is shadow, which, when you think about it is an incredible gift. It’s what we do with that illumination that determines whether our relationship with the plant is healing or not.
How many times have you been told to eat more vegetables? That you need to move your body? And how often do you acknowledge those facts and then go right on doing what you were doing before?
So, knowing all of this, how can we most effectively and holistically use cannabis to reliably reduce our stress and anxiety? From figuring out your dosing to incorporating other herbs, I’ve put together a free 16-page ebook with a handful of tools for doing just that. Just click here to access, and feel free to get in touch with any thoughts or questions you have after reading!
I will say, though, that these tools are just the beginning steps to finally getting a handle on your stress response. The final challenge is that information does not equal transformation. There’s a gap here, between what you know you need to do and actually doing it. How many times have you been told to eat more vegetables? That you need to move your body? And how often do you acknowledge those facts and then go right on doing what you were doing before?
This is where the support and accountability of an herbalist or wellness coach is crucial. We’re not meant to do these things alone, and I invite anyone who is looking for support in these areas to consider booking a FREE 60-minute coaching call with me. Maybe you’ll decide that now is finally the time to break free of your stress and anxiety, and even if it isn’t, I guarantee you’ll gain some deeper insight about your best path forward.
Stephanie Boucher is a certified Clinical Herbalist and Certified Cannabis Coach, having graduated from the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism‘s 3-year Clinical Herbalist Training Program, as well as the Cannabis Coaching Institute. In addition to her traditional herbal training, she also holds a Professional Certificate in Cannabis Science and Medicine from the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, and has a decade of experience in the cannabis industry, primarily as a medicine maker.
Stephanie has long been fascinated by plants, particularly the cannabis plant, and how they bring together the realms of science, spirituality, healthcare, social justice, and ecology. She is the owner and operator of CannaBotanicals, a clinical practice offering in-person and distance herbal consults and coaching with an emphasis on holistic approaches to cannabis use, custom formulas, and a line of small-batch hemp-based herbal remedies. She lives in East Montpelier, Vermont.