Higher levels of stress are associated with an increased risk of substance use disorders (SUDs) and other mental health conditions like depression. Stress may exacerbate underlying conditions and weaken individual response systems that process events and build resilience. It can also make licit and illicit substance use more appealing as a treatment for anxiety. In popular culture and many ordinary associations, cannabis use is often presented as a stress-relieving substance, a mostly harmless escape from life’s ups and down. It’s also seen as an option for those just seeking to unwind. These urban myths are rarely evaluated in real time. Recent scientific research has not validated this self-medication approach to stress and anxiety. If anything, research suggests that such substance use is a major warning sign. The use of cannabis or other THC products may carry special risks for those self-medicating and shouldn’t be so lightheartedly rendered as a relaxation tool.
Use of THC products is widespread. Rates of cannabis smoking and vaping are similar to those reported for cigarettes and cigarette smoking is related to marijuana use. I have studied and written about these associations for many years: to summarize, both have important second and third hand exposure risks and it may well be that learning to smoke is the most important gateway event.1 THC use is also rising in many states that have legalized the substance, and among the young, for whom the effects of THC are different and likely more dangerous than they are for older individuals. The NIH’s 2019 Monitoring the Future survey also found a spike in rates of youth vaping marijuana, concerning because of the substance and the risky delivery route.2
But whether it’s logical to use THC products for stress relief, instead of exercising or meditating or taking a walk or doing yoga or talking to a friend or therapist, is a different question from why some individuals do it. People often report anxiety as a primary motivation for using THC products, and it isn’t hard to find someone who will swear by the substance as a tranquil godsend without which life would be far less interesting and considerably more fraught. In January, researchers published the results of a study on the manifestation of stress and anxiety in the brain. It provides one answer to the question of why some individuals turn to marijuana for stress relief—a molecule that manages anxiety and stress is involved in the same brain functions affected by marijuana. This study also suggests that stress is a risk factor that might make smoking more reinforcing.