Medical cannabis and panic disorders

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It’s Okay To Talk About Mental Health

The past couple of decades have seen a major change in the way that we talk about mental health. Today, it’s more acceptable than ever to discuss your anxiety with friends or let your workplace know about your struggle with depression. These new conversations on mental health have also sparked an important realization: mental disorders are a lot more common than we think.

For example, up to 5% of the world’s population suffers from a panic disorder. This condition is characterized by frequent and unexpected panic attacks that don’t necessarily have a trigger. These attacks can feel overwhelming and disabling, and people with panic disorders live in fear of their next one. So while panic disorder is very widespread, it’s by no means harmless, or a normal part of life.

The most common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • an overwhelming sense of terror or dread
  • “intuition” that something bad is going to happen
  • accelerated heartbeats
  • difficulty breathing
  • sweating
  • chills or hot flashes
  • shaking
  • nausea

What’s the Current Treatment for Panic Disorders?

Needless to say, people with panic disorders are ready to try anything they can to avoid suffering from another panic attack.

There are a couple of ways to deal with panic attacks that include elements of cognitive behaviour therapy. These include things like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and positive affirmations. But because panic attacks can be so overwhelming, many panic disorder sufferers resort to psychiatric medication to help manage them.

Today, the most popular method of treatment for panic disorders is a type of antidepressants known as SSRIs. SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These medications increase the amount of serotonin (the “happy chemical”) available in the brain, which helps to regulate mood and lower levels of anxiety.

Panic disorder can also be treated with a few other medications, including:

  • antiseizure drugs
  • tranquillizers of the benzodiazepine sort
  • other kinds of antidepressants

Unfortunately, many of these drugs have unpleasant, long-term effects. And because they need to be taken daily in order to effectively prevent panic attacks, many doctors are now looking at medical cannabis as an alternative, safer form of treatment.

Case Studies: Medical Cannabis and Panic Disorders

Can medical cannabis treat and prevent panic disorders? While there have only been a few studies on the topic, they are very promising so far.

We already know from a number of studies that cannabis can be effective in lowering levels of anxiety. The same mechanisms that are involved in dealing with anxiety disorders could also make cannabis effective for panic disorder. While CBD studies are limited, the ones carried do indicate that CBD has anti-panic properties. Let’s take a look at some of these relevant findings.

2017 Brazilian Review of Medical Cannabis for Panic Disorders

A group of Brazilian scientists found that there were a lot of studies supporting the use of medical cannabis for anxiety disorder. They decided to compile all the available research and focus on the anti-panic actions of CBD.

What they found was that “CBD exhibits anti-panic properties”. In several studies, CBD appeared to affect the zones of the brain that are related to panic reactions. Those who suffer from panic attacks have slight structural differences in brain zones like the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. And interestingly, this is precisely the zones that CBD has an effect on.

Finally, the review stressed the safety profile of CBD. Compared to common panic disorder medicines, it appears to cause much fewer adverse reactions. Unlike SSRIs, CBD doesn’t have any serious long term effects. And unlike tranquillizers like benzodiazepines, it doesn’t risk causing addiction.

2013 Brazilian study on the effects of CBD on panic attack-like behaviour

One of the most conclusive studies that we have on the effects of cannabidiol (CBD) for panic disorder is a 2013 study conducted on mice.

For this experiment, researchers wanted to find out whether CBD could lower levels of panic in animals. They took a group of mice and gave them a high dose of CBD (3 mg/kg), before exposing them to one of their most common predators, a wild snake.

Usually, coming face to face with a snake creates a panic reaction in mice. But, compared to the placebo control group, mice who had taken CBD were less affected by the encounter.

The scientists suspect that the effect of cannabidiol on 5-HT1A receptors in the brain is at least partially responsible for its anti-panic effects.

Animal studies are not always applicable to humans. However, we know that panic reactions are very similar in mice and people. So while further clinical studies on human subjects are still needed, this study remains promising about the use of medical cannabis against panic reactions.

Could medical cannabis create panic attacks?

When people hear about taking medical cannabis for panic attacks, they are often confused. After all, we’ve all heard of people getting cannabis-induced paranoia or anxiety. The truth is, cannabis is a complex substance that can have sometimes contradictory effects.

In the studies mentioned above, patients only took one kind of cannabinoid, known as CBD. From what we know, any quantity of CBD lowers levels of anxiety, even very high doses. It’s very important to note that CBD does not cause any intoxicating effects. 

Things are a little different with THC. As the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC does cause intoxicating effects that users often refer to as “being high.” While small doses of THC generally tend to decrease anxiety, higher doses can actually increase it. Moreover, studies have shown that individuals respond to THC very differently from one another. This means that consuming THC-rich medical cannabis could do wonders for your panic disorder, but actually cause a panic attack for your friend.

So, should you try medical cannabis as a treatment for panic disorder? It could be a good idea, but you have to be careful about what you take. Unless you know for a fact that you respond well to THC, you may want to stick to medical cannabis that only contains CBD.

With any THC products, we always recommend for you to “start low and go slow.” All this means is starting with a really low dose of THC and then giving yourself time to see how it makes you feel before taking a second dose.

The Final Word

Panic disorder affects the lives of millions of people. While panic attacks can be managed with practices like meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing by some people, others require medical intervention.

Today, medical cannabis offers new hopes to people with that condition. Not only is it effective in calming down panic reactions, but it also has the advantage of being much safer than traditional antidepressants and tranquilizers. Safe, effective and well-tolerated, cannabinoids like CBD could be the new best way to treat panic disorder.