Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults aged 18 and over, or 18.1% of the population. Anxiety disorders are also highly treatable, yet only 37% of those suffering receive professional help. Prescription medications are often the first line of treatment for anxiety disorders – and they do save lives – but many drugs can cause harmful side effects, including addiction. And many sufferers are never diagnosed at all.
When addressing such a complex and often elusive problem, many people have begun to supplement mental health support and pharmaceutical drugs with herbal remedies, including CBD. And there’s good evidence that CBD can help a great deal – but to understand why, it helps to know how anxiety works in the first place.
Most people are familiar with the occasional symptoms of anxiety, like butterflies in the stomach, racing thoughts, and a rapid heart rate that may arise when we narrowly avoid an accident while driving or have to give a presentation at work. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) classifies anxiety as chronic when it presents itself “most days over a period of six months or more.”
It turns out that anxiety serves a purpose. Early humans often faced immediate physical threats, like animal attacks and avalanches, and the human stress response evolved to keep us safe. Stress hormones like cortisol are essential to the “fight or flight” response, enabling us to act quickly and escape danger. However, the stressors we encounter in modern life – like financial and relationship pressures – tend to be ongoing instead of immediately hazardous, and our bodies don’t know the difference.
If there’s no outlet for the stress response, it doesn’t allow us to leave the “fight or flight” mode easily. Chronic stress trains your brain to feel anxious — it wants you to “remember” so you can anticipate (and hopefully avoid) more pressure in the future. This can be physically and emotionally exhausting. High levels of stress hormones are known to cause or aggravate many serious health problems, including:
Genetic predisposition to mental illness can be a major factor, but if you’re under enough stress for long enough, you may develop chronic anxiety even if nobody else in your family has.
CBD affects the body in numerous ways, and studies suggest that cannabidiol’s influence on neurotransmitter systems, neural regeneration and extinction learning are key to its efficacy. These mechanisms include:
Effects on serotonin. Most people think of serotonin as the brain’s “happy juice”, but it’s a complex chemical with many roles. Too much serotonin can be just as damaging as too little. CBD, like the anti-anxiety drug buspirone (Buspar), binds to 5-HT1A, the serotonin receptor that is thought to play the largest role in moderating anxiety.
Effects on the endocannabinoid system. Your body produces cannabinoids that are structurally and functionally similar to the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis, among other plants. These chemicals, called endocannabinoids, and their corresponding receptors play a major role in many of the body’s essential functions, both physical and mental. This system can become unbalanced and dysregulated under stress. CBD may help restore balance to the ECS by preventing overstimulation of its receptors, and by boosting production of the endocannabinoids that are necessary for maintaining so many essential processes.
Effects on neural regeneration. Chronic stress can damage neurons (brain cells). Over time, it may even shrink the brain. It was long thought that once neurons are gone, they’re gone forever, but recent research indicates that’s not necessarily true, and certain parts of the brain can actually regrow neurons that have been damaged or destroyed. Studies show that CBD encourages neural regeneration, especially in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s associated with memory, learning, and mood.
Effects on extinction learning. Ideally, we “unlearn” anxiety triggers when there’s nothing left to fear and our environment is safe. In cases of chronic, cyclical stress, this is a challenge. Studies on both rodents and humans indicate that CBD facilitates the extinction learning process, enabling us to let go of anxiety triggers more readily.
As we’ve seen, constant stress is an unfortunate fact of modern life. It impacts mental and physical health in so many ways that a multi-pronged, holistic approach may be most effective for managing anxiety.
Even medical doctors have begun recommending that patients supplement traditional treatment approaches, like talk therapy and prescription medication, with lifestyle practices like yoga, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.
If you choose to supplement with CBD, it’ll work best as part of a comprehensive plan. Consult with your doctor before beginning any new regimen, especially if you’re already taking prescription drugs for anxiety or depression – like grapefruit, CBD can interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize drugs properly.
Once you get the all-clear from your doctor, you’ll want to select the method of taking CBD that’s right for you. Oils and tonics don’t act immediately, but the relief they provide lasts a long time. Swish CBD oil in your mouth instead of swallowing it for better absorption. For a quicker effect in moments of crisis, try a CBD vape pen – made with ceramic components, and free of propylene glycol. And always choose products from reputable companies that are transparent about their sourcing, ingredients, testing, and manufacturing process.
If you’ve been dealing with chronic stress and anxiety for long enough, it will take time to reverse the damage. A behavioral approach can go a long way towards creating new mental habits, but you might get there faster if you allow your brain to rebuild and relearn on a deeper level. CBD may have a significant positive impact on this process, helping you to feel better sooner.