Feb 11, 2021THC and Mental Healthby staff writer and counselor, Jessica Morris, MA, LMHCA, SUDPT

More and more states and jurisdictions are legalizing cannabis- a drug that has been federally classified as a Schedule I substance since the 1930s.  With this, many people are wondering the impact that it can have on society and on mental health.

THC (or Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the main psychoactive ingredients in cannabis.  For the purposes of this post, we will only be focusing on the impact of THC. THC works on the body’s built-in endocannabinoid system- the system designed to help us come down from an anxious reaction.  When the brain detects a threat in the environment, it sends an alert to the body to activate the acute stress response (fight-or-flight). The acute stress response causes the body to allocate all resources to safety.  That is, it will stop focusing on metabolism, increase heart rate, increase respiration, and make the person hypervigilant, among other things.  When in an anxious state, our brains no longer focus on food, water, exhaustion, or sleep.  But how do our bodies know when the threat is no longer active so we can calm down again?

Enter the endocannabinoid system.  The endocannabinoid system in the brain determines when a threat is no longer a threat.  When this happens, it sends the anxious signals backwards to alert the brain and body to induce a state of calm. Since the signals work backwards, you can expect an opposite response to an anxious state.  That is, the brain will re-allocate resources towards rest, relaxation, hunger, and thirst. Since THC activates the endocannabinoid system, users report feelings of calm, hunger, and sleepiness when under the influence.  

In counseling, we recognize that THC can be a helpful tool in stopping anxiety. However, that does not mean that it is all positive.  Much like with any substance, our brains and bodies can develop a tolerance to THC, thereby rendering a person unable to come out of an anxious state without the help of THC; hence why many people report difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and anxiety when reducing or ceasing THC use.  If this is happening, do not be discouraged.  There are skills and techniques that can be used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms from THC. It is also important to note that for reasons that are yet to be determined, some people have adverse psychotic reactions to THC- meaning that they may become highly paranoid or even have hallucinations, which can be dangerous to the user and those around them. This appears to be more likely in people with a predisposition to schizophrenia, but more research is needed to determine the exact relationship.

If you or someone you know is struggling with THC use, anxiety, or any other mental health condition, please feel free to reach out to our qualified staff at Counseling Services of Olympia.  We have several substance use disorder professionals on staff who can help you reduce or stop your cannabis or other drug use!

This article was written by staff writer and counselor, Jessica Morris, MA, LMHCA, SUDPT