How Cannabis Can Potentially Alleviate Social Anxiety Symptoms
People who are extroverts seem to have no problem socializing. In fact, they appear outgoing, confident, and at ease in a room full of people they may not even know and have a lot of fun meeting and talking to new people.
For others who are introverted or struggle with social anxiety, that scenario can feel nightmarish. People who have social anxiety disorder may feel lonely and want to connect with other people. However, the symptoms of anxiety create an emotional obstacle for them.
Many people choose to self-medicate in social situations to help alleviate the stress of social anxiety. For some, that means consuming alcohol when out with family or friends. But increasingly, researchers are sounding the alarm about the long-term health impact of consuming alcohol.
If you experience moderate to severe social anxiety, there may be a safer alternative. Medical cannabis is frequently used by patients who suffer from debilitating mental health symptoms. It could be a solution to help remove some of the obstacles that inhibit social engagement.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is sometimes referred to as social phobia. It is a mental health condition where an individual can feel very nervous and extremely fearful of social situations. That includes individual or one-on-one social opportunities or participating in events with large crowds.
The disorder is much more than feeling shy or awkward around others. There is an inner critic and narrative that creates negative and often humiliating potential outcomes. By ruminating or worrying about all the bad things that could happen, people with social anxiety disorder can feel emotionally paralyzed by fear and dread.
For this reason, individuals who live with social phobia may be reclusive. They may have a strong desire to have meaningful friendships and relationships; however, the symptoms of severe anxiety are debilitating. They may choose to withdraw from social activities rather than endure all the feelings of a panic disorder.
What Does Social Anxiety Disorder Feel Like?
When someone has a social anxiety disorder, they may feel like they are in a constant battle suppressing thoughts that make them nervous or scare them. Some people with SAD may be triggered by being in an unfamiliar area or while they are traveling.
Some people describe social anxiety disorder as feeling as if there is a large spotlight on you. Or that everyone is watching for you and waiting for you to slip up by saying or doing the wrong thing. We are all capable of “messing up” when we are feeling nervous, and the symptoms of SAD feed into the fear of humiliation and social rejection.
One of the hardest things for someone with social phobia to reconcile is loneliness. When someone avoids social activities, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that they are simply not interested. But that could not be further from the truth for people with SAD. They want to be around other people, but the moderate to severe anxiety symptoms make it a high-risk emotional situation for them.
How Many Americans Have Been Diagnosed With SAD?
Mental Health America estimates that approximately 15 million people have Social Anxiety Disorder. That represents almost 7% of the adult population in the United States. Studies indicate that 75% of patients living with social anxiety disorder (SAD) experienced their first episode during late childhood or early teen years.
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, approximately 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder suffer from alcohol dependence. The connection between SAD and substance abuse is higher among women.
What Treatments Are Available for Social Anxiety Disorder?
Many mental health conditions cannot be completely resolved or cured. However, when working with healthcare professionals, patients can engage in different treatment options. Ongoing support and therapeutic training can help individuals learn effective ways to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Common approaches to treat or resolve social anxiety disorder include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
- Self-Help Strategies (relaxation, mindfulness training, and lifestyle changes).
- Prescription Medications (commonly SSRIs or benzodiazepines).
- Anxiety Support Groups.
- Virtual Reality (VR) Social Training.
- Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Education.
Some patients who have tried to treat anxiety symptoms with prescription medications have experienced negative side effects. The reported anxiolytic effect attributed to the prescription medication is often less beneficial for patients when compared to the side effects some people experience using the drugs.
For some patients, even with prescribed medications, symptoms remained moderately severe. This is why many patients who have not found relief with anxiety medication begin to explore doctor-supervised cannabis use.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
When a patient has a primary anxiety disorder diagnosis, it may be part of broader mental health needs. For example, some patients with SAD may develop major depressive disorder after failing all attempts at managing anxiety.
Studies testing major cannabinoids reveal that people who experience severe anxiety disorders may have something in common when it comes to brain chemistry. Some researchers have suggested that overactivity in the limbic system of the brain (hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and thalamus) may be the reason severe anxiety disorders occur.
Social anxiety disorder is not something created in your head but an actual health condition caused by unique functioning in the brain. A different way of being wired causes higher-than-average emotional reactivity and symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Self-Medicating With Alcohol Is Harmful To Your Health
One of the reasons that alcohol abuse is so prevalent among people with social anxiety disorders is that the effects of alcohol are predictable. Alcohol regularly acts as a depressant after a brief period of positive emotional vibes.
Alcohol can be effective at temporarily dialing down feelings of anxiety; however, alcohol is also a known carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance. In recent years, the health guideline of 2-3 drinks per week has been updated to “no amount is really safe.”
Potential Benefits Of Using Cannabis For Social Anxiety Disorders
If you have traditionally used other substances to moderate your symptoms of social anxiety, there is a new and potentially safer alternative. Many states allow patients who are diagnosed with a mental health condition to access doctor-supervised medical cannabis.
Getting a medical card not only offers legal protections for patients, allowing them to purchase, possess, and use cannabis safely, but it can also be the start of achieving real relief from anxiety symptoms.
If you have social anxiety disorders, cannabis use may help in four ways:
1. Cannabis Can Help You Feel More Relaxed
Someone who does not suffer from anxiety disorders can still feel stressed and awkward while out in the social scene. And they can have concerns or feel apprehensive, too. But when you have a social anxiety disorder, you aren’t just worried about what to wear. Your emotions become overloaded with irrational fears of rejection and humiliation.
Since no one is more awkward than someone who is worried to death about being awkward, cannabis can be a lifeline for people with social anxiety. Some strains can make you feel like the mental slate has been wiped clean (if only for a few hours), allowing you to relax and enjoy talking to other people without the internal dialogue and emotional pressure you place on yourself.
2. Some Strains Can Substantially Improve Your Mood
Many people struggle to manage anxiety; you are not alone. If you are constantly coping with high stress, worry, and concern, it can be exhausting. Cannabis can have both anxiogenic and anxiolytic properties, meaning it can variably cause and reduce symptoms of anxiety.
When you’ve taken the time to research cannabis products that can help with social anxiety, look for strains that mention psychoactive effects like euphoria, talkative, and relaxation. These are indicators of strains that can lift and improve your mood and reduce some of the symptoms of social anxiety.
If you are home alone, consider trying a strain that may cause a “perma smile” or a not-so-dreaded case of giggles. Laughter is good medicine and can help you naturally unload negative emotions or concerns. Your dog will also love it.
3. Managing Symptoms That Make You Feel Uncomfortable
Social anxiety disorder can be caused by traumatic memories, and patients may experience a crippling fear of being embarrassed in front of others. It is not uncommon for people who have physical disabilities, tics, or other noticeable involuntary movements or behaviors to feel self-conscious.
For example, if you have another diagnosis, such as epilepsy, spasticity, or Tourette’s syndrome, the stress you feel about engaging socially can worsen symptoms. Medical cannabis may provide pain relief and help reduce muscle spasms and more. This may help improve confidence and reduce worries.
4. Medical Cannabis Can Help With Insomnia
It can be hard to feel like socializing when you don’t get enough sleep. We all know how hard it is to go to work and get through the day when you didn’t sleep well. Now imagine that every morning felt that way. Because that is what it is like for someone with chronic insomnia.
Insomnia not only messes with your energy levels but also affects your mood on a physiological level. There is more going on behind the scenes when you feel irritable and tired, and you may have less ability to control that negative mood than you think.
Some clinical studies suggest that sleep deprivation and insufficient REM sleep (rapid eye movement stage) can cause temporary impairment. When you don’t get enough REM sleep, your brain has difficulty processing information that is connected to your emotions. And filtering stimuli to help decide what is okay to disregard or ignore and when emotional reactivity is required.
Struggling long-term with sleep disruption also causes impairment to your immune system. Some studies have shown that sleep-deprived individuals may have fewer connections between the amygdala (emotional processing) and other parts of the brain.
Creating healthy sleep patterns (and using medical cannabis if required) may help stabilize mood swings and make you feel more comfortable socializing.
Warning! Cannabis Is Both A Stimulant And A Depressant
Our physicians at DocMJ have talked to patients who shared that when they previously tried medical cannabis for anxiety disorders, it didn’t work for them. However, many patients admitted to trying only a small number of strains to help with their symptoms.
There are more than 700 different strains of cannabis, and each one has a unique profile, including minor cannabinoids and terpenes. It is important to research or ask for advice about strains of medical marijuana that may help with symptoms of anxiety.
It is also critical to be aware that some strains of cannabis can significantly increase anxiety. The good news is that dispensaries have that information for you. So, when you are choosing a strain to help with social anxiety symptoms, they will recommend appropriate cannabis products.
Using high-potency medical cannabis or concentrates can exacerbate moderate to severe anxiety. The higher the THC potency, the more likely you will experience more anxiety (not less). Start in the low to mid-range if you are using medical marijuana for the first time, and learn how different potencies affect you.
I am a Chief Marketing Officer at DocMJ, a leading provider of medical cannabis health services to qualified patients. I have over 20 years of experience in healthcare marketing and communications, with a proven track record of delivering impactful and compliant campaigns that educate, inform, and empower patients to make better choices for their health and wellness.