The numbers of Americans in support of marijuana legalization are climbing as cannabis culture becomes more mainstream. Not only are we seeing more acceptable cannabis use in the media, but friends and relatives are taking up the hobby — often in the name of health. These days, cannabis is purported to help almost every physical and mental ailment, from cancer to epilepsy to chronic pain to PTSD, and some initial research into such claims is promising.
Yet, experts warn against improperly using marijuana and other cannabis products for the sake of mental disorders, specifically anxiety and depression. Understanding why requires a dive into how cannabinoids affect a user’s mental state and comparing THC vs. CBD.
The Psychoactive Effects of THC
Delta-9-tetracannabinol, or THC, is the most common cannabinoid within marijuana, and it is the cannabinoid responsible for the drug’s psychoactive effects. Inside the body, THC has an almost-identical structure to a naturally produced brain chemical called anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid that helps the mind and body maintain balance. Unlike anandamide, THC floods into various bodily systems and overwhelms them, causing outrageous reactions like euphoria, blurred vision, slowed time, relaxed muscles and hunger. This is, essentially, the feeling of being high.
The psychoactive experience of THC can be beneficial for those experiencing depression and anxiety. If nothing else, THC is an incredible disruptor — it forces the mind and body to change course, which can provide welcome relief to those suffering from negative sensations. For those experiencing anxiety and depression, happiness and contentment are rare, and marijuana’s ability to stimulate those emotions can remind users that they are capable of having fun and feeling glee.
Unfortunately, the reverse can occur, too. THC doesn’t inspire a physical dependence, meaning it won’t cause a user to endure withdrawals; however, THC can create psychological dependence, or compulsive use of the drug often in pursuit of the positive sensations the drug provides. Those who rely heavily on THC’s ability to inspire euphoria may become dissatisfied by the relatively dull feelings of pleasure they experience when sober, and they might compulsively use and abuse marijuana to the detriment of their relationships, careers, financial health and more.
Ultimately, those experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety should seek professional help from mental health professionals. If those professionals determine THC use to have positive effects, those with anxiety and depression should strictly follow use guidelines as outlined by their doctors, or else they could seriously impair their attempts to regain mental stability.
The Healing Effects of CBD
After THC, the second-most-common cannabinoid is cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not have a psychoactive effect. Though it was the first cannabinoid ever discovered, CBD is still not entirely understood by the medical community — but research does indicate that it has immense power to do good within the body and mind. Unlike THC, CBD does not seem to mimic other chemicals within the mind and body; instead, it seems to encourage the body to be better at regulating its internal balance, which means mitigating negative sensations, like stress and pain, and encouraging beneficial ones, like relaxation and calm.
Studies using animal models found that chronic stress — the kind often associated with clinical depression and anxiety — often leads to the suppression of natural chemicals that encourage mental balance. In these studies, animals developed depression-like behavior, but the introduction of CBD helped restore normal chemical levels and eliminate that behavior.
Because CBD does not produce noticeable psychoactive effects, the risk of psychological dependence is much, much lower — perhaps even non-existent. What’s more, CBD is legal for purchase and possession around the U.S. in a variety of products, from oils to capsules to creams and edibles, but it is worth noting that the highest-concentration CBD products are usually only available at medical marijuana dispensaries.
There are both benefits and risks to using marijuana — or any drug — to combat mental illness. Depression and anxiety are complex, and they rarely exist on their own; it is imperative that those suffering find solutions not just to the symptoms of their mental disorders but to the situations in their lives that inspired them. Both THC and CBD can be useful tools, but they are best applied under the supervision of an experienced and knowledgeable expert.