A huge number of people deal with chronic anxiety, either in the form of generalized anxiety or social anxiety disorder, or both. There are certainly effective treatments out there, but this week, a couple of studies have been in the news. One study, from Washington State University, looks at the role pot may play: More specifically, it tries to quantify the ratio of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) that’s most effective for stress, anxiety, and depression. The other, from Michigan Technological University, finds that a single session of mindfulness meditation has a significant effect on the anxiety of people with mild-moderate anxiety. But there’s an important caveat that’s worth pointing out.
Let’s look quickly at the new studies. The first, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, had participants smoke medical marijuana at home, and rate their symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression using an app that’s designed to help people track how different doses affect their symptoms. The team found that high CBD/low THC was best for reducing short-term depression. Low CBD/high THC was most effective for reducing stress, while any type worked on anxiety. Treatments of any kind were generally more effective for women than for men.
One concerning finding was that cannabis in general was linked to more significant symptoms of depression over the longer-term, leading the authors to say, “continued use may exacerbate baseline symptoms of depression over time.” This issue alone might somewhat defeat the purpose of using medical marijuana (or recreational pot) for mental health issues.
Still, the authors are encouraged by their findings. “This is to my knowledge one of the first scientific studies to provide guidance on the strains and quantities of cannabis people should be seeking out for reducing stress, anxiety and depression,” said study author Carrie Cuttler in a news release. “Currently, medical and recreational cannabis users rely on the advice of bud tenders whose recommendations are based off of anecdotal not scientific evidence.”
The other study, presented today at the Experimental Biology annual conference, found that a single 60-minute session of mindfulness meditation was enough to reduce participants’ anxiety—sometimes profoundly. The team had people with mild-to-moderate anxiety do a meditation that consisted of 20 minutes introductory meditation, 30 minutes of body scanning, and 10 minutes of self-guided meditation. Their anxiety was measured with the Beck Anxiety Inventory and heart health measured via tests of heart rate variability, resting blood pressure, and pulse wave analysis, which measures blood vessel stiffness.
And the results were significant: Participants reported less anxiety immediately after the treatment and a week later. Their cardiovascular measures also improved.
“Our results show a clear reduction in anxiety in the first hour after the meditation session, and our preliminary results suggest that anxiety was significantly lower one week after the meditation session,” said study author John J. Durocher in a statement. “Participants also had reduced mechanical stress on their arteries an hour after the session. This could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure.”
So which is better for anxiety? Both may be promising, at least for anxiety per se (more on the depression issue in a sec). It’s worth pointing out that neither of these studies was the first of its kind. Earlier work has shown that cannabis has significant anxiety-reducing effects, and that it helps people with social anxiety calm down in the face of social stress. And new studies are underway to look at the use of cannabidiol oil as an anti-anxiety treatment.
But meditation has a strong body of evidence behind it, perhaps stronger than marijuana’s. Earlier research has illustrated its effectiveness in treating anxiety, rumination, and, importantly, chronic depression. A multitude of studies has also illustrated its effects on the structure and function of the brain, especially in regions that govern rumination, “me-centered” thoughts, and anxiety. The fact that it’s helped treat depression, and prevent relapse, in so many studies may be the clincher, since, according to the new marijuana study, at least, long-term relief from depression isn’t a benefit that pot can claim. For people who have both anxiety and depression, this may make the difference.
So when it comes to anxiety alone, legal issues aside, both medical marijuana and meditation may be effective. But for people with depression alongside their anxiety, meditation may be the way to go, as its effects are much better understood. Not only does it not worsen depression, it may actually improve it.