What Explains the Link Between Cannabis Use and Social Anxiety?

What Explains the Link Between Cannabis Use and Social Anxiety?People affected by significant social anxiety often use marijuana or other forms of cannabis. In turn, people with anxiety problems serious enough to qualify for an official diagnosis of social anxiety disorder often also have cannabis-related problems that qualify them for a diagnosis of cannabis use disorder. In a study published in June 2014 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two U.S. universities explored the connection between social anxiety and cannabis intake. Specifically, these researchers looked at the role that the desire to avoid unpleasant emotional states plays in the behaviors of socially anxious cannabis users.

Cannabis and Cannabis Use Disorder

In the form of marijuana, cannabis ranks as the most widely used illegal or illicit drug in the U.S. For a number of reasons (including a common and only partially relevant comparison with the risks of alcohol use), many people see the drug as essentially harmless, or even view it primarily as a medication. However, ongoing scientific findings repeatedly identify a number of serious risks associated with both casual and habitual cannabis/marijuana use. One of the main risks is the potential for the development of cannabis use disorder, a condition that includes the symptoms of cannabis addiction and a non-addicted but clearly dysfunctional pattern of cannabis abuse. The rate of diagnosis for this disorder ranges from a low of 9 percent for the combined pool of all casual and habitual users to a high of 25 percent to 50 percent for habitual users alone. Cannabis use disorder is classified as a subtype of a condition called substance use disorder. Affected individuals have at least two and as many as 11 abuse- or addiction-related symptoms of problematic cannabis use.

Cannabis Use Disorder and Social Anxiety

Mental health professionals use the term social anxiety to refer to unusually strong feelings of dread or fear that arise in common social situations. If a socially anxious person has feelings strong enough to seriously interfere with his or her ability to maintain an overall sense of well-being or function in everyday life, he or she typically qualifies for an official diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. According to recent research findings reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people diagnosed with cannabis use disorder are unusually likely to also meet the criteria for a social anxiety disorder diagnosis. In four out of five cases, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder appear before an affected person develops cannabis use disorder. This may indicate that highly socially anxious people frequently use cannabis/marijuana in attempts to ease their anxiety. However, it may also mean that current heavy cannabis users may rapidly develop social anxiety problems as a result of their level of cannabis intake.

Cannabis use disorder and social anxiety disorder are comorbid disorders. This means that a person simultaneously affected by both of these conditions commonly experiences worse outcomes than a person who has only one of them. In addition, people with comorbid cannabis and social anxiety problems are overwhelmingly likely to have diagnosable problems with another form of mental illness such as a personality disorder, a mood disorder (bipolar disorder or depression) or a second type of anxiety disorder.

What Explains the Link?

In the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Louisiana State University and the University of Houston used an examination of 103 adult cannabis/marijuana users to explore the underlying link between diagnosable cannabis problems and diagnosable social anxiety problems. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if socially anxious people use cannabis/marijuana as part of an effort to cope with or avoid unwanted emotions that arise during social situations. All of the participants had used cannabis/marijuana in the 30-day period prior to the start of the study.

After analyzing the social anxiety levels and patterns in the study participants, the researchers concluded that cannabis users affected by significant anxiety do indeed commonly use the drug as part of an attempt to avoid experiencing their unpleasant emotional states. This emotional avoidance is apparently unique among all coping techniques used by socially anxious cannabis users and goes a long way toward explaining why the drug is consumed by these individuals. Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that the desire to avoid unwanted emotions may form an important part of the picture for general motivations for cannabis intake. This desire is especially prominent in those individuals with high levels of social anxiety.

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