Can CBD Help Treat Panic Attacks? [Exploring the Science]


The prevalence of anxiety is rising in Western nations, and the USA is not immune to this trend. According to the largest book retailer in the country, Barnes & Noble, sales of books about anxiety have jumped by 25%. It is, in some ways, a mysterious condition. You feel trapped in an invisible cage; you’re a prisoner but don’t know why. You feel terrible for reasons you can’t define.

Panic attacks, better known as Panic Disorder, relate to an anxiety disorder that affects roughly 1.7% of American adults. This equates to around 2.4 million people. Women are twice as likely to develop the condition than men, and 50% of all people who have a panic disorder develop it before the age of 24.

Whether panic attacks link directly to anxiety or else they start through some other stress factor, they are real, frightening, and emotionally debilitating. Generally, doctors will treat panic attacks with psychological therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Thanks to recent research, however, an alternative option has come to light. Scientists are agreeing that CBD is potentially an effective treatment for panic attacks.

What are Panic Attacks?

While often thought to be the same thing, panic attacks and anxiety attacks are different. Anxiety attacks initiate in reaction to a stressor. For example, a person may feel apprehensive or fearful of a certain situation. Anxiety attacks are short-lived; when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety.

In contrast, Panic Disorder does not relate to a stressor. Rather, it involves repeated and unexpected instances of intense fear. This precedes symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, and abdominal distress. Sometimes, the symptoms mimic those of a heart attack or another serious medical condition. As a result, extensive testing is sometimes necessary to correctly diagnose Panic Disorder.

Individuals with Panic Disorder often develop a feeling of intense anxiety between their episodes. In fact, it isn’t unusual for someone in this situation to develop a phobia about a place or situation where a previous panic attack has occurred (such as at a shopping mall or restaurant).

Common progression of panic attacks

As the frequency of the attacks increase, the individual avoids situations where they believe another attack may occur. or else they may not get immediate help. Although an isolated panic attack might only last for a few minutes, it leaves a deep psychological imprint.

The memory of the fear and terror you experienced can devastate your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life. Eventually, you could suffer from one of these Panic Disorder symptoms:

  • Phobic Avoidance: You start avoiding certain environments or situations because you believe they are similar to the locations where you have suffered a panic attack. At its most extreme level, you could develop agoraphobia.
  • Agoraphobia: At one time, this condition was associated with open spaces and public places only. Now, it is believed that agoraphobia can develop after panic attacks. While it can develop at any time, it usually happens within a year of your first recurring panic attacks. It manifests as a fear of having a panic attack in a place where it is hard to escape from. As a result, you begin avoiding crowded places, enclosed areas, and even physical exercise.
  • Anticipatory Anxiety: This can have a severe impact on your life. Rather than feeling relaxed and ‘normal’ in the time between panic attacks, you feel tense, nervous, and anxious due to a fear of future attacks.

Common symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pains
  • Chills
  • Tingling in different body parts
  • Terror
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Nausea or upset stomach

What Causes Panic Disorder?

Unfortunately, doctors have been unable to pinpoint the reasons why certain people get Panic Disorder, although it does seem to be partially hereditary. Other causes could be stressful life events (such as entering a new workplace, getting married, having a child, or the death of a loved one) and thinking in a manner that exaggerates your normal bodily functions. Alas, the precise reason is unknown, although Panic Disorder is the subject of detailed scientific investigation.

Studies in humans and animals try to pinpoint the specific brain areas that associate with in fear and anxiety. We understand that a structure deep within the brain known as the amygdala coordinates fear response. This is a complex structure, and according to research, abnormal activation in this part of the brain could produce anxiety disorders.

Another possibility is that Panic Disorder, as well as associated panic attacks, are caused by a physical issue or a medical condition such as:

  • Withdrawal from medication.
  • Use of stimulants such as cocaine, caffeine, or amphetamines.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Overactive thyroid gland.
  • A minor cardiac problem called mitral valve prolapse, which happens when one of the heart’s valves fails to close properly.

Traditional Medicine to Treat Panic Attacks (Not Related to CBD)

If you decide to go down the traditional route to treat a panic attack then it’s important to understand that doctors will tend to prescribe two types of medicine:

Antidepressants – This is generally the first choice of doctors. When taken regularly, they alter neurotransmitter configurations which in turn help to block symptoms.

Anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) – The use of benzodiazepines for panic attacks is an extremely controversial topic among researchers. For example, while The American Psychiatric Association found positive evidence and claim that benzodiazepines can be used based on the individual patient’s history, The National Institute of Clinical Excellence came to a different conclusion, concluding that benzodiazepines were not effective in the long-term for panic disorder. According to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence, benzodiazepine use should not exceed four weeks when being used for panic disorder.

Substances to Avoid When Experiencing a Panic Attack

  1. Caffeine – Caffeine is a known stimulant and can trigger various emotions including nervousness, nausea, and lightheadedness.
  2. Artificial and Refined Sugars – Although one can find sugar in virtually everything we eat these days, it’s important to be conscientious about it. Studies have shown that sugar creates changes in your body that can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
  3. Alcohol – While thought to be a stress reliever by some, alcohol is a toxin that leads to improper physical and mental functioning. This is a result of fluctuating levels of serotonin in the brain. Alcohol also affects the nervous system and can cause an increase in heart rate.
  4. Trans Fat – Trans fat, aka hydrogenated fat, is one of the worst foods for your health. Unfortunately, it is also one of the tastiest. Studies have found that trans fat can increase your risk of depression, and may lead to more anxiety-like symptoms.

CBD and Panic Attacks – The Science

As of now, it is known that THC can have a calming and soothing effect on the human body. This occurs when the anandamide in our bodies react with the THC in cannabis. Recent studies, however, show that a different cannabinoid known as CBD may also have positive effects on panic suffers.

One study published in Neurotherapeutics, for instance, examines CBD as a possible treatment for anxiety disorders. The conclusion states that preclinical trials suggest CBD’s effectiveness in reducing anxiety behaviors.

The researchers found that cannabidiol helped with various disorders, including SAD, PTSD, PD, OCD, and GAD. It stated that the anxiolytic actions of the cannabinoid depended on CB1 receptors and 5-HT1A receptors in several brain regions. The study also stated that further investigation of the additional receptor actions could uncover more mechanisms.

It went on to say that findings in experiments involving humans supported preclinical discoveries, and suggest a minimal sedative effect, a lack of anxiogenic effects, and a safety profile described as ‘excellent’. The study did point out that the findings are mainly based on ‘acute CBD dosing’ in healthy people. This means additional research is needed to find out if chronic dosing is effective in the relevant clinical populations.

One of the most recent reviews of studies involving CBD and anxiety was conducted by Soares and Campos in 2017, where it was published in the Current Neuropharmacology journal. The research paper was titled ‘Evidences for the Anti-panic Actions of Cannabidiol’. The researchers pointed out that SSRIs, the current first-line treatment for Panic Disorder, are not effective in the long-term, and carry an array of side effects that cause patients to discontinue the treatment.

What did the research say?

In contrast, CBD has anti-anxiety properties, and the duo put the theory to the test on both human and animal subjects. The research concluded that “CBD seems to be a promising drug for the treatment of PD.” It did go on to say that clinical trials involving patients with Panic Disorder were needed to show the “specific mechanism of action of CBD” along with the cannabinoid’s “safe and ideal therapeutic doses.”

A review by Crippa et al., published in the September 2018 edition of Frontiers in Immunology, looked at the therapeutic potential of CBD. The paper aimed to describe the advances in the use of cannabidiol in neuropsychiatry. The review found that CBD had antipsychotic, anxiolytic, and neuroprotective properties.

Both basic and clinical investigations found that CBD had benefits for patients with conditions as wide-ranging as PTSD, Parkinson’s, bipolar disorder, social phobia, and sleep disorders. The researchers wrote that CBD was a “useful and promising molecule” that could help people with a variety of clinical conditions.

For the record, one study in the 2017 Soares and Campos review found that a single dose of 300mg of CBD caused a significant decrease in anxiety levels after a simulated public speaking test. In a different study in the review, a 600mg dose of CBD caused a major reduction in anxiety in people with social anxiety disorder.

There’s still a problem…

While this is potentially fantastic news, there is one problem: Even the most inexpensive high-quality CBD products cost around $70-80 per 1,000mg. Therefore, a single 300mg dose is the equivalent of $21-24. If you took a single dose every day, it would be $600-700 per month.

Even though brand antidepressants and other anti-anxiety medications can cost $200 a month, it is still less costly than CBD. On the other hand, if CBD works and the other drugs don’t, there isn’t much of a conversation to be had! Hopefully, future studies will show the efficacy of smaller CBD doses. Over time, the price of CBD is likely to go down as competition in the market intensifies.

Final Thoughts on CBD for Panic Disorder

Preliminary research into CBD’s effects on Panic Disorder, plus an array of other conditions, has proven positive to date. CBD comes from specially grown marijuana strains such as Cannatonic, Harlequin, Charlotte’s Web, and ACDC. However, weed remains federally illegal in the United States, so conducting clinical studies on it is next to impossible; at least it is with cannabis used on the streets.

In contrast, industrial hemp is now legal to grow in the U.S., and this plant contains a mass of CBD with little THC. Therefore, it should theoretically be easier for scientists to learn more about this particular cannabinoid. Soon enough, we should have ample evidence which proves CBD’s efficacy, or lack of.

If you have been diagnosed with Panic Disorder and have turned to CBD for help, please let us know all about your experiences in the comments section below. Include your diagnosis (if you feel comfortable sharing), your daily CBD dosage, and the effects you felt. Remember, the research backs up many claims about CBD, but it is only a drop in the ocean. A LOT more studies have yet to be conducted.

As things stand, anecdotal evidence into the benefits of CBD for anxiety disorders such as PD is mounting up. We know that there are tens of thousands of people all over the world who swear by CBD. Although there is still some resistance; an increasing number of experts believe that cannabidiol has potential therapeutic use. If it helps wean people off dangerous opioids, that is a bonus.

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