I’ve suffered from some level of anxiety for as long as I can remember, so the topic of anxiety and how to combat it is very close to my heart. As it turns out, I’m not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans age 18 and older. That’s over 18% of the population! No wonder everyone seems so tense these days.
Unsurprisingly, this results in a lot of us turning to pharmaceuticals for relief. According to one study from 2010, 1 in 5 Americans is on some sort of medication used to treat psychological disorders, with many of those people taking pills for something related to anxiety. That’s a lot of pills with a lot of potentially scary side effects.
Luckily, more and more studies have been showing that CBD might be an effective alternative for those suffering from the various forms of anxiety. In this post, I’m going to give you a rundown of what is going on in your body when you feel anxious and also take a look at some of the science on CBD to see how it might help. CBD likely won’t help everyone with their anxiety, but hopefully the information here might help some of you get a little natural relief from this horrible malady.
My experiences with anxiety
Let me begin by saying that people experience anxiety in a wide range of different ways. This is only my experience.
I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) when I was a teenager. It’s hard for me to tell you how it all began, as at this point it feels like anxiety is something that has always been with me, but in general I remember always feeling tense. By “tense” I don’t just mean that my muscles were tense, although they definitely were, but rather a global feeling of tension, like I was always on edge, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
Here’s the most maddening aspect of anxiety for me—see, I KNEW I wasn’t in danger, knew there wasn’t anything I needed to worry about or run from. And yet, I couldn’t get my body to stop acting like there was a grizzly bear somewhere in my house waiting to jump at me as soon as I let my guard down. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get myself to relax, and that constant state of tension was downright exhausting.
But the fun didn’t stop there. When your body is in a constant fight-or-flight mode you start questioning whether everything really is OK. Maybe I’m feeling like this because something really is wrong with me. Why would my body do this if not to let me know that something is horribly wrong? I better start paying attention or something disastrous is going to happen!
It gets worse...
And that’s when the panic attacks started. My anxiety would cause me to start looking for problems, which would cause more anxiety in a self-fulfilling prophesy style feedback loop. I would start paying attention to my heart beat and breathing, becoming more and more sure that I wasn’t getting enough air or taking full enough breaths. This would result in more anxiety and faster breathing until I had spun myself into full hyperventilation and panic.
When the panic attacks became more frequent, I began to develop agoraphobia out of the fear that something would trigger another attack while I was out in public. I became more and more afraid of leaving my home and venturing out into the world, and eventually started severely cutting myself off from others in an attempt to fend off another horrifying experience.
That was 15 years ago, and although anxiety is still something I need to be aware of and manage, I have made a pretty amazing recovery.
What is anxiety?
So, what was happening to me? What was actually going on inside my body that resulted in me becoming an anxious mess?
Turns out the story is rather complicated, and researchers are not 100% sure about the cause of anxiety. That being said, we do have some ideas about what is going on.
But first, we need to make one distinction:
Stress vs anxiety
People tend to use the words “stressed” and “anxious” interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. In general, stress is a physiological response to an external stimulus. This stimulus can be anything from difficulties at work, arguments with friends and family, high levels of physical exertion, prolonged periods of mental focus, or any number of other situations that place your mind or body under a high demand or threat. Feeling tense from long hours at work or losing a few nights sleep due to an argument with a loved one are perfect examples of stress.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a reaction to stress itself. If the stress of tight deadlines and long hours at work cause you to tense up and lose sleep, anxiety would be the worry or unease that are triggered by that stress. The difference can get a bit confusing because anxiety can itself cause more stress, which in turn can then cause more anxiety. Just think of stress as the reaction to the stuff that happens to you and anxiety as the way you deal with the reactions to that stuff that happens to you. Anxiety is so meta.
Another hallmark of anxiety is that, unlike stress, anxiety tends to stick around long after its cause is gone. The sleepless nights caused by stress usually fade away once that fight with your significant other has been resolved, but the sense of worry and unease caused by anxiety will remain. This was one of the worst parts for me, since it drove me crazy that I kept worrying when I seemingly had nothing at all to worry about anymore. Of course, this just caused more stress, which triggered more of an anxious response, and round and round I went.
What is happening in the brain?
You can really jump down an internet research rabbit hole trying to answer this question (and believe me, I did!), but the short answer seems to be something like this: things in your limbic system have gone a bit haywire. Your limbic system is a set of structures in the brain that supports a variety of functions like emotion, memory, and motivation. It also helps regulate our fear responses, so it isn’t surprising that this is the birth place of anxiousness.
Another potential issue is that the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA can be out of whack in an anxious person’s brain. These chemicals are all neurotransmitters that help send signals between neurons in the brain, and researchers think they might have a lot to do with both depression and anxiety. In fact, most pharmaceuticals that treat anxiety work by specifically targeting the receptors that absorb these neurotransmitters and shutting them down so that more of them remain in your system, effectively boosting the levels of serotonin and/or norepinephrine.
What does that all mean EXACTLY?
So, what in the world is actually happening up there in the head that makes us feel so crazy? After spending hours researching the subject, I have to admit that it looks like the honest answer is: we aren’t really sure. We have a good idea of what area of the brain is responsible for anxiety, and we have a good idea of what chemicals, when we regulate them, seem to impact anxiety, but we don’t really have the full picture yet.
If that sounds crazy, then look at it like this: we were able to forge iron swords and arrow heads centuries before we knew anything about the atomic structure of those elements. Blacksmiths throughout history were able to make amazingly functional (and sometimes beautiful!) weapons while having no idea what they were doing down at the molecular level. Something very similar, it seems to me, is going on with neuroscientists and the brain. We have a general idea of what is going on, we can even make medications that have amazingly beneficial effects, but we don’t REALLY know what is going on.
How does CBD treat anxiety?
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a doctor. I’m just some guy who researches things and tells you about them on the internet, so don’t take any of this as official medical advice. That being said, hopefully you find some of this information compelling and use it as a jump off point to do your own investigation and maybe, just maybe, get some relief that you badly need. That’s my hope, at least, since I know how horrible anxiety can be.
So let’s jump in! As far as I can tell, there are likely two main ways CBD combats anxiety:
CBD helps alleviate stress
Remember all that talk about the difference between stress and anxiety and how anxiety is actually a response to stress? Well, it stands to reason that if you can somehow lower or otherwise help manage the stress that your body undergoes, then you might be less likely to trigger that anxiety response. In other words, if stress really is an underlying cause of anxiety, then why not tackle that stress head on?
Luckily, managing stress and its effects is something CBD is pretty good at. For the most part, stress can be thought of as a stimulus that challenges our body’s homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to maintain a functional balance and resist threats to its well-being. CBD has been shown in numerous studies to aid with homeostasis and to help manage sleep, inflammation, blood pressure, heart rate, and a number of the other effects of stress.
This is something I have found success with in my own battles with anxiety. The more I worry the more tense I become, the more tense I become the less I sleep, the less I sleep the more my body wears down, and the more I wear down the more I worry, completing the anxious cycle. By taking CBD to help relax my body, treat aches and tension, and to ensure a good night of sleep, I help to derail that cycle and get off the tracks before arriving in anxiety town.
CBD Helps Regular Neurotransmitters
The second way I’ve found that CBD might help treat anxiety is by actually influencing your brain chemistry in a similar way pharmaceuticals do, but with far fewer, if any, side effects.
Studies have shown that CBD facilitates serotonin binding at a key receptor, 5-HT1a for those of you keeping score at home, that specifically helps reduce the onset of fear, anxiety, and some other nasty psychological issues. In a nut shell, it looks like stimulating this specific serotonin receptor helps cut off the anxiety response to stress, and who doesn’t like the sound of that?
GABA is another neurotransmitter that CBD appears to help out. Apparently, one of GABA’s main roles is to help slow down activity in the brain, which can calm us down and even help us get to sleep. Many people actually take straight GABA supplements as a sleep aid. CBD, it turns out, enhances GABA’s ability to bind with its receptors, allowing it to do its job of calming us down better. This means there’s less of a chance of kicking off into the higher stratospheres of anxiety.
Similar to its work on serotonin, CBD also appears to work its magic on norepinephrine regulation, another neurotransmitter we believe to be responsible for mood and anxiety. Ever heard of serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Effexor or Cymbalta? Yup, looks like CBD might do a very similar thing to those drugs, just, you know, with a lot fewer drawbacks.
For all those out there who suffer from anxiety every day, know this: there is hope. I use CBD everyday to help deal with the stress of daily life and as an athletic recovery aid, and from my perspective, it seems to help me relax and more easily avoid spinning up into full blown anxiety. It isn’t the only thing I do to combat anxiety, but I honestly think it has helped me tremendously.
Are you someone who suffers from anxiety? What have you tried to combat it, and have you given CBD a try? Let us all know about your experiences with CBD and anxiety in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you, and if we can pass on information that helps even one other person avoid the terrors of another panic attack, it will all be worth it.