Using Marijuana for Treating Anxiety

Risks of self-medication with marijuana

Verywell / Cindy Chung

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Marijuana has been used as an herbal remedy for thousands of years. Today, as marijuana is more widely legalized in the United States—both for medicinal and recreational use—more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, and even panic attacks.

Although further research is still needed to understand the effects of marijuana on anxiety, there are anecdotal and scientific reports of marijuana temporarily relieving symptoms; however, there are still potential negative side effects of marijuana to consider.

This article covers what you need to know about self-medicating with marijuana, the benefits and risks, as well as alternative treatment options for managing anxiety.

What Is Self-Medicating?

When you use a substance to treat or cope with a medical problem or symptom without the supervision of a medical professional, it is called self-medicating. Often, self-medicating produces an immediate relief of uncomfortable symptoms, thereby reinforcing its use.

People will continue to self-medicate with a substance that temporarily relieves symptoms, even when the substance itself causes unpleasant side effects. Over time, it may be difficult to stop self-medicating—even despite these side effects.

Self-Medicating With Marijuana

Even though the use of marijuana is becoming more acceptable, not enough is known about the efficacy of the drug for particular medical conditions—as well as its long-term consequences—for it to be considered a safe treatment option.

The following is an overview of the benefits and risks that are linked with marijuana use. It's important to note, however, that everyone experiences marijuana differently. While some experience benefits from using cannabis, others do not.

Benefits
  • Short-term relief of depression

  • Stress reduction

  • Temporary relief of anxiety

Risks
  • Cannabis hyperemesis syndrome

  • Risk of psychiatric disorders

  • Increased tolerance

  • Long-term memory loss

  • Psychological dependence

  • Worsened anxiety

Potential Benefits

The following are common reasons people use cannabis for anxiety.

Reduced Anxiety Symptoms

Two of the main compounds in cannabis—tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)—are linked with potential therapeutic effects for anxiety.

THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis, which makes you feel the "high" when you smoke weed, for instance. In low doses, THC is linked with feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and sociability.

People with social anxiety may self-medicate with cannabis, as it may make some less intimidated or nervous when in public settings.

Reduced Symptoms of Other Psychiatric Disorders

Scientists at Washington State University published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression and stress in the short term.

Although, repeated use doesn't seem to lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms, and in some individuals, may increase depression over time.

Some use pot as a treatment for anxiety and panic attacks, too. However, in high doses, THC may actually induce panic attacks in some people.

Pain Relief

Cannabis may provide relief for physical pain—particularly among adults with chronic or neuropathic pain (caused by damaged nerves). More research is needed to compare marijuana's effectiveness in relieving pain compared to other options.

Improved Sleep

Studies show that short-term cannabis use may lengthen the time a person is able to stay asleep. THC and/or CBD may help some fall asleep earlier and wake up fewer times during the night.

People who struggle to fall or stay sleep due to their anxiety may self-medicate with cannabis to try to improve their sleep.

However, cannabis doesn't improve sleep for everyone.

Potential Risks

Marijuana can affect your body in many ways beyond just getting you high. The high feeling you may experience after smoking or ingesting marijuana is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.

The effects of THC do not come without risks, and long-term or frequent use has been associated several potential side effects.

Higher Levels of Psychiatric Disorders

Various studies have found that young adults who self-medicate with marijuana actually have higher rates of generalized anxiety, panic disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

While depression may trigger someone to use cannabis to relieve their symptoms, studies found that higher cannabis use is linked with worsened depression symptoms. More research is needed to understand whether cannabis may cause depression or increase the risk of depression.

Some research has shown that heavy use of marijuana in adolescents (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of anxiety and depression—and increase the risk of suicide—later in life.

Certain susceptible individuals that use high-potency marijuana regularly may also be at a greater risk of developing psychosis later on.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Psychological Dependence

The central problem with using marijuana as an anxiety coping tool is that it can create a psychological dependence on the substance.

People may come to rely on marijuana because its effects are fast-acting; however, this may make some less likely to develop long-term behavior-based coping strategies that are more sustainable over time.

Long-Term Memory Loss

Several studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because THC alters one of the areas of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation.

Increase in Anxiety Symptoms

People predisposed to higher levels of anxiety may be more likely to experience the negative effects of THC (i.e., dysphoria or panic).

THC can raise your heart rate, which, if you have anxiety, may make you feel even more anxious. Using too much marijuana can also make you feel scared or paranoid.

Cannabis can also cause feelings of dizziness, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision, which can contribute to anxiety.

Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome

A rare consequence of frequent marijuana use, particularly with today’s more potent strains, is cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This involves cyclical nausea and vomiting.

This is paradoxical and can be difficult to diagnose, as marijuana has been used to decrease nausea and vomiting in cancer treatment.

Those who have CHS sometimes find relief in hot baths and showers, but ultimately, abstinence from marijuana is necessary for long-term improvement. 

Higher Tolerance

You can develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means that the more you use it, the more you will eventually need to use to get the same “high" as earlier experiences.

Cannabis Use Disorder

Cannabis use disorder (also known as marijuana use disorder) is considered an addiction to cannabis in which a person cannot stop using the drug. Signs of cannabis use disorder include:

  • Continued use of marijuana despite negative physical or psychological effects
  • Continued use of marijuana despite social or relationship problems
  • Engaging in high-risk activities (such as driving a car) while using marijuana
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop
  • Marijuana cravings
  • Trying to quit but failing
  • Withdrawing from activities or social events in order to use marijuana

Cannabis Withdrawal Syndrome

Those who use marijuana heavily may find that if they try to cut back or stop using altogether, they experience symptoms of cannabis withdrawal syndrome (CWS), which include:

Physical Effects

Unfortunately, marijuana use may cause potentially dangerous physical effects such as:

  • Cardiovascular strain
  • Head rush or dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased risk of falling or fainting

Alternatives to Marijuana

Remember that some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful when you are confronted with something that feels threatening to you.

However, when feeling anxious becomes pervasive and difficult to control, it is best to seek professional help to discuss other forms of anxiety management.

Therapy

Proactive coping strategies, learned through counseling, support groups, as well as self-help books and educational websites, can create lasting change without the negative components of extended marijuana use.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy can help you determine the underlying cause of your anxiety and manage it more effectively. You may work with a doctor to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.

Working with a psychotherapist to manage your anxiety can give you a better handle on your condition in the long run. 

Medication

The use of certain prescription medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been firmly established as safe and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

Prescription medication is also preferable to marijuana since the long-term risks have been better studied and are potentially less significant compared to long-term marijuana use.

Some anti-anxiety medications are taken daily, while others are taken episodically during periods of extreme anxiety or a panic attack.

A psychiatrist or primary care doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, should you need one.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

CBD doesn't contain THC, so it won't give you the same mind-altering effects as marijuana. CBD comes in many forms, including tinctures and oils. CBD products have become increasingly popular—from CBD gummies to CBD topical creams.

There is some evidence to suggest that CBD could be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and addiction, but more clinical trials and research are needed in this area.

A Word From Verywell

Symptoms of anxiety are treatable. Studies show that psychotherapy and medication are effective for most individuals, whereas the long-term effects of self-medicating with marijuana have yet to be clearly established. If you’ve recently started experimenting with marijuana use to treat your anxiety, be sure to consult with a doctor.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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