The coronavirus crisis has catapulted its way into our daily consciousness. An inescapable topic that is now reflected back at us every minute of the day on TV, transport routes, social media, supermarket aisles, any and all conversations…
And for good reason. It’s a deadly virus that we all need to be kept continuously aware of. But for many people, the fear, uncertainty and paranoia that accompany an unprecedented global pandemic can become all consuming.
On top of the daily stresses we face in “normal” reality, the prospect of potential infection for ourselves and others, limited social contact, dire economic consequences and an inability to exercise or be in nature can all become a source of debilitating anxiety.
Cannabis in the form of THC has long been associated in the recreational space with a “chilled out” state of being. And its non-intoxicating cousin CBD has shown great promise in helping to achieve the same effect, but without the ‘high’.
Anxiety is by far the most common reason why people go looking to try CBD. Anecdotally, there have been many reports of individuals feeling more relaxed and calm after using cannabis. But, due to decades of restriction, researchers have only in the past few years begun to figure out why this is so.
Similar to some anti-anxiety drugs, CBD is understood to activate a type of serotonin (the chemical believed to be linked to happiness and wellbeing) receptor in the brain, which is why one of its best known benefits is as a mood enhancer and alleviator of anxiety.
In fact, a study from Vanderbilt University found that cannabis can actually cut down connections between parts of the brain known to activate anxiety.
The research focused on the link between the amygdala (the emotional hub regulating our fight-or-flight response) and the frontal cortex. The connection between the two is largely considered a kind of stress-anxiety superhighway in the brain.
They discovered that the circuit between these two parts of the brain is stronger in individuals with certain types of anxiety disorders.
“As people or animals are exposed to stress and get more anxious, these two brain areas glue together, and their activity grows stronger together,” says Dr Sachin Patel, co-author and director of the Division of General Psychiatry at the university.
It is an element of the endocannabinoid system (our built-in network of receptors that respond to cannabis) called 2-AG that helps to regulate how this amygdala and frontal cortex interact. And when scientists boosted the levels of 2-AG in mice, they were able to short circuit and break these connections - in so doing reducing their anxiety levels.
Another study in 2010 also found that CBD affected the brain, in this case by altering blood flow patterns in the parts that are associated with stress. The results indicated that not only did CBD provide relief from anxiety, but it also fundamentally changed the brain’s initial reactivity to anxious feelings.
While there is still much more to be learned and proven, encouraging initial outcomes like these have lead many to start turning to CBD as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical medication for treating everything from panic attacks to social anxiety, and more acute conditions like depression.
Researchers have even equated CBD’s natural effects with those of antidepressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medication), touting it as a “potential treatment for anxiety disorders” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
A 2016 study on a 10 year old girl suffering from PTSD found that while pharmaceutical treatments were short-lived and had serious side effects, doses of CBD provided her with long-lasting anxiety relief and a consistent improvement in her ability to sleep.
So while we face the uncertainty of the future months ahead, with more and more people experiencing sleepless nights and unprecedented levels of anxiety, the numbers of individuals seeking and finding solace in CBD looks set to rise.
Now is probably as good a time as any to give the good leaf a try - and hopefully for those who feel the difference it can become a solution that sees them through COVID-19 and beyond.