Cannabis and Mental Health: Social Anxiety Disorder

Can you treat social anxiety disorder with cannabis?
ByAndrew Ward

Social anxiety may sound like something we all experience at times in life, and that is true. It is natural for a person to feel nervous or anxious in situations like being alone in a new place or going on a first date. But for those living with social anxiety disorder, those instances of anxiety can be prolonged to the point that it can drastically affect a person’s life.

Not to be confused with general shyness or introversion, social anxiety disorder goes further. It tends to make a person want to avoid everyday activities like school, work, and other social gatherings. They will still feel the daily pressures and anxieties like everyone, but may also find themselves analyzing their actions and heavily scrutinizing every move they make. Expecting the worst of outcomes is another symptom that may indicate that a person is suffering from social anxiety disorder.

Patients often begin to experience symptoms around their teens but may start in adulthood. The Mayo Clinic lists inherited traits that may be factors. They include brain structure and a person’s environment. It also lists several risk factors. Family history, negative experiences, a person’s temperament, new demands in work or social situations, as well as having an appearance or condition such as a disease or disfigurement can all play a part.

Data from the National Institute of Mental Health found that 7.1% of U.S. adults suffered from social anxiety disorder in the past year. The NIMH also found that women had a higher prevalence of the disorder compared to men at 8% to 6.1%.

One concern worth noting is not cannabis use itself, but how mental health is addressed and diagnosed. A 2015 analysis of anxiety disorders found that “[a]lthough effective psychological and pharmacological treatments exist for anxiety disorders, many affected individuals do not contact health services for treatment, and of those who utilize these services, a high percentage is not diagnosed correctly or not offered state-of-the-art treatment.”

While far from state-of-the-art, cannabis has become a treatment option for some trying to overcome their social anxiety. As is the case with any medical condition and cannabis use, not everyone is sold on the practice.

2009 study detailing marijuana use and social anxiety disorder found that people living with the condition were more likely to have “cognitive/behavioral impairment and global negative expectancies.” Meanwhile, a 2014 analysis of several studies found a positive association between anxiety and cannabis use.

Dr. Mark Hashim is a Florida-based practicing physician. He also works with the medical cannabis portal Arfinn Med. The board certified anesthesiologist and interventional pain management specialist is also a cannabis educator and speaker. He has certified over 3,000 medical cannabis patients and notes “a very large population” of patients suffer from anxiety, including PTSD and social anxiety disorder.

He also reported that many of his patients with social anxiety disorder see improvements when consuming cannabis. “I can honestly say that well over 90% of the patients with a SAD diagnosis do extremely well using medical cannabis and are able to decrease, and in most cases, eliminate big pharma medications altogether,” said Dr. Hashim.

The doctor also pointed towards a 2014 NYU School of Medicine study of CBD and its potential to treat anxiety disorders. Its conclusions stated, “Preclinical evidence conclusively demonstrates CBD’s efficacy in reducing anxiety behaviors relevant to multiple disorders, including PTSD, GAD, PD, OCD, and SAD, with a notable lack of anxiogenic effects.”

Jon Deak is one person who believes in cannabis as a treatment for social anxiety disorder. Deak said that his “anxiety was off the charts” before someone introduced him to marijuana. He noticed an almost immediate effect. Today, Deak uses both THC and CBD oil.

Deak also started his own online vape shop, Hot Juice, which sells CBD vape options. He credits using CBD with helping his company grow. “To build up my business, I had to attend a lot of networking events, meetings and run presentations. Meeting and greeting this amount of people in such a short space of time wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Elana Cohen is a public relations professional who suffers from social anxiety disorder. She was diagnosed eight years ago but remembered getting anxious in social situations as a child. By the time she was 22, Cohen said her slight anxiousness felt like it became a social anxiety disorder overnight.

“I sought help immediately because I was terrified at the fact that I felt physically ill when I tried to leave the house or went somewhere as simple as the grocery store,” she explained.

Cohen says the most significant driving force to seek out help was her fear of mental illness. After losing her mother to suicide when she was 15 years old, Cohen resolved to do what she could to combat her own mental health condition. “Once anxiety took ahold of my life I swore I would never ever let it win.”

However, Cohen was told what many have to hear from physicians: to consume prescribed over the counter medications. While useful for some, Cohen did not feel right. “I basically just felt like a robot, and I was trapped in my own body.”

Cohen credits the team at Chicago’s Columbia Care dispensary for helping her find specific THC and CBD products that work well with her social anxiety. She now reports feeling less robotic while being able to go to social functions without an anxiety attack. “I truly thank the plant every day for helping guide me through my anxiety-ridden life and making me feel joy again.”

As is the case with every mental health condition, cannabis is not a fix-all for people. While the accounts detailed above show positive results, others may experience different outcomes. Consult with a medical professional to discuss the potential side effects and results of using cannabis if you have social anxiety disorder.