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How cannabidiol (CBD) works for treating anxiety

October 13, 2016
While we don’t normally think of anxiety as desirable, it’s actually a critical adaptive response that can help us cope with threats to our (or a loved one’s) safety and welfare. These responses help us recognize and avert potential threats; they can also help motivate us to take action to better our situation (work harder, pay bills, improve relationships, etc.). However, when we don’t manage these natural responses effectively, they can become maladaptive and impact our work and relationships. This can lead to clinically diagnosable anxiety-related disorders. We’ve all heard the saying, “stress kills.” It’s true!

Anxiety-related disorders affect a huge segment of our population—40 million adults (18%) in the United States age 18 and older. In response, Big Pharma has developed numerous drugs to treat anxiety-related disorders, from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft to tranquilizers (the most popular class being benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax).


The best cannabis strains for anxiety

While these drugs can be effective for many patients, some don’t respond favorably. Certain patients don’t see much improvement, or they can’t tolerate the side effects. Moreover, tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax can be highly addictive. Clearly, alternative treatments are warranted. Could cannabidiol (CBD), the most prominent non-intoxicating constituent in cannabis, provide a viable alternative for currently available anxiety medications? Quite possibly!

In recent years, CBD has generated a tremendous amount of interest among consumers, clinicians, and scientists. Why? Not only does evidence suggest CBD counteracts many of THC’s adverse effects, but numerous animal studies and accumulating evidence from human experimental, clinical, and epidemiological studies suggest CBD has powerful anti-anxiety properties. Administered acutely (“as needed”), it appears safe, well-tolerated, and may be beneficial to treat a number of anxiety-related disorders, including:

  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Social phobia
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Mild to moderate depression

How does CBD work?

Active receptor isolated on blue

CBD exerts several actions in the brain that explain why it could be effective in treating anxiety. Before we dive in, it’s important to note that most research describing how CBD works is preclinical and based on animal studies. As the saying goes, “mice are not men” — and, results from animal studies don’t always neatly transfer to human therapies. However, preclinical studies provide insights that move us in the right direction:

5-HT1A agonist: 5-HT1A is a subtype of the serotonin receptor, which is important because anxiety and depression can sometimes be treated with medications that target the serotonin system. This is why drug companies developed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft. SSRIs work by blocking reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, which increases availability of serotonin in the synaptic space. This helps brain cells transmit more serotonin signals, which can reduce anxiety and boost mood in certain cases (although the full biological basis for this is more complicated and not fully understood).

Similar to SSRIs, CBD may boost signaling through serotonin receptors. In an animal study, Spanish researchers found that CBD enhances 5-HT1A transmission and may affect serotonin faster than SSRIs. Researchers noted:

“The fast onset of antidepressant action of CBD and the simultaneous anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect would solve some of the main limitations of current antidepressant therapies.”


Cannabis and Depression

Hippocampal neurogenesis: The hippocampus is a major brain area, and plays a critical role in a variety of brain functions. It’s most famous for its role in memory formation and cognition. Brain scans of patients suffering from depression or anxiety often show a smaller hippocampus, and successful treatment of depression is associated with the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus.

An animal study using mice found repeated administration of CBD may help the hippocampus regenerate neurons, which could be useful for treating anxiety or depression. Research shows both SSRIs and CBD may promote neurogenesis. This is significant, because evidence suggests that severely impaired neuronal plasticity may influence suicidal behavior. Future research comparing CBD and SSRIs effect on neurogenesis could open up promising new avenues in how we understand depression and how to most effectively treat it.

How can CBD help anxiety?

Medical Marijuana Plants Grown in Supportive Fencing
Building on the foundation of animal studies, human studies are starting to provide evidence to demonstrate that CBD can improve many commonly reported anxiety-disorder symptoms, including acute stress and anxiety.

Human studies show how CBD reduces anxiety

Brazilian researchers conducted a small double-blind study of patients afflicted with generalized social anxiety. After consuming CBD, participants reported a significant decrease in anxiety. Researchers validated patients’ subjective reports by performing brain scans showing cerebral blood flow patterns consistent with an anti-anxiety effect.

In another small study, researchers had patients suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder perform a simulated public speaking test. Participants reported significantly less anxiety, findings supported by objective anxiety indicators like heart rate and blood pressure.

Researchers concluded, “[CBD] significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort in their speech performance,” whereas the placebo group experienced “higher anxiety, cognitive impairment, [and] discomfort.”

Final thoughts

Evidence from animal studies have begun to characterize the details of how CBD acts in the brain, and human studies of patients with and without anxiety disorders are starting to validate CBD’s efficacy as an anti-anxiety treatment. Given the huge social and financial costs of anxiety disorders in the U.S., CBD has the potential to play a significant role in treating a myriad of anxiety-related disorders.

While more research, including large randomized-control trials (RCTs), is clearly warranted to examine the long-term effects and potential for CBD, its demonstrated efficacy and highly favorable safety profile (particularly when compared to currently available drugs) make it a viable alternative or adjunct to currently available pharmaceuticals.

Blessing EM, Steenkamp MM, Manzanares J, Marmar CR. Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders. Neurotherapeutics. 2015;12(4):825-36. PDF
Malberg JE, Eisch AJ, Nestler EJ, Duman RS. Chronic antidepressant treatment increases neurogenesis in adult rat hippocampus. J Neurosci. 2000;20(24):9104-10. PDF
Zlebnik NE, Cheer JF. Beyond the CB1 Receptor: Is Cannabidiol the Answer for Disorders of Motivation?. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2016;39:1-17. PDF

Jeremy Kossen's Bio Image

Jeremy Kossen

Jeremy is a contributing writer at Leafly. He is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur.

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  • Open Minds

    Good article. Two proven natural ways to minimize anxiety are exercise and meditation.

    • What do you think about CBD? Why offer those alternatives (which are good for everything, it is patently true not just “provable”, while it is probable). I have chronic pain and scoliosis as well as stiffness and fatigue from schizophrenia medication, and CBD is both antipsychotic and minimizes anxiety, as well as assists pain which allows me TO meditate or exercise. I can’t even do those half as effectively without medical marijuana products. Whatever they are proven to do, pot and pot components are thankfully getting proven and studied more rigorously and informatively.

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    It’s taken me a while to get on the CBD kick but the more I research, the more excited I am about it, and…. the more disappointed I am in our society that there are so many politics involved with hemp. I sell CBD oil with Kannaway ( and education is key. I know people that hesitate to use CBD oils because they just cannot separate CBD and THC in their minds. I’m convinced, though, that we’re going to break through and help retrain the people about the need for CBD. Yes Zoloft helped me with anxiety related to PTSD but CBD helped with that and got me healthy and less foggy and more energy and able to sleep… the list goes on and on. I cannot watch a Parkinson’s impact video with crying; the things CBD oil can do is nothing short of amazing. Everyone needs CBD oils.

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    Has anyone done any comparisons of CBD oil products so that we can know which are highest quality? Are CBD oil products currently monitored by the FDA or any other agency to ensure their safety and potency?

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      I use pharmaceutical quality from Green Roads….

    • Fred Jones


  • Gerry

    I don’t know how much to take, I have been taking 1000mg twice a day ….

    • IamSavedByGrace

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        Now I take 550mg twice a day, I have cervical dystonia so I need a high dose. I feel less anxiety and its working much better..

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        in canada an Rx is needed.

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    I take Xanax and other meds for my depression and anxiety. Is it safe to try cbd oil along with these meds?

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      How to sensibly buy LEGAL cbd oil? Because I got a letter saying customs has confiscated my package two times already and I’m pissed.

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    When medical marijuana became a thing in Seattle, before full legalization, many of my friends found relief from their darker moods with cannabis. At that time, I didn’t have a MMJ card to buy the medical stuff, but a buddy gave me some CBD oil he wasn’t using and I took it in the winter. The grey Seattle rain wasn’t getting to me anymore. I would smile a lot more and it helped me get through a serious break-up and transition in my life. I remember at the time hearing cases like this: . How suicide rates dropped in states where medical and recreational use became legal.

    It’s very compelling and the research being done is ongoing.
    Read up on some of my work investigating CBD and it’s role in treating low moods and long-term depression.
    Take care of yourselves!

  • Aseni

    Individuals are continuously suffering varying degrees of anxiety about death. We did a study on “An overview of Death Anxiety”, Method of concept analyses and an extensive online literature have been used for this study. Overall data provided evidence that anxiety about death is rife within western culture. Its prevalence, particularly with women and significant number of cases elderly people experience less death anxiety than young people.

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    Does it works well for anxiety?

    • salim harun


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      Try to help folks, they might have their own agenda.

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