What's your worst acrophobia experience

Stoners with Anxiety Disorder

Not every long-term stoner is a case for the psychiatrist. However, studies indicate that a comparatively high proportion of cannabis users suffer from anxiety disorders. But what is the difference between stoners with an anxiety disorder and non-anxious users? And is fear a cause or a consequence of the consumption?

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Fear is a natural and sometimes life-saving reaction to a threatening situation. However, if people react inappropriately or permanently anxiously to things that other people do not or hardly feel threatening, one speaks of an anxiety disorder or phobia. This can lead to significant impairments in the everyday life of those affected. For example, people with agoraphobia - also known colloquially as "claustrophobia" - avoid crowds of people in queues, buses or public places. In the worst case, they hardly ever leave their own apartment.

Fear of other people

So what do anxiety disorders have to do with cannabis use? Research suggests that cannabis use is more common among anxious people. According to a study from the United States, 29 percent of all people who develop social phobia suffer from problematic cannabis use. In the US general population, however, problem cannabis use only applies to 4.2 percent.

People with social phobia avoid situations where they have to speak in front of others or attend social events. That alone Expectation before social situations can cause fear. Strictly speaking, social phobia is the fear of possible critical reactions from other people because they fear they will behave in a clumsy or embarrassing manner. In such situations, anxiety can escalate to a panic attack.

The social phobia usually appears for the first time in adolescence. To some extent, fear is also part of the normal development of children and adolescents. In some young people, however, social anxiety causes extreme stress.

Cause or consequence?

Given the apparently increased prevalence of cannabis use among adolescents and young adults with social phobia, the question arises whether fear of social situations is possibly a cause of smoking weed. Cannabis also has a relaxing effect. It is also conceivable that fears only arise through the use of cannabis. After all, it is known that intoxicated users can have panic attacks. Then the fear would be more the result of smoking weed.

Julia Buckner from Florida State University in the USA and her research team carried out a series of studies on the social phobia of cannabis users. Particularly noteworthy is a longitudinal study that extended over a period of 14 years. 816 students took part. They were an average of 16.6 years old at the first examination and an average of 30 years old at the time of the last follow-up examination.

The results clearly indicate that problematic cannabis use only develops after the first signs of social phobia and is significantly related to it. Social anxiety is therefore a significant one Risk factor for developing problematic cannabis use.

Smoking weed as a coping behavior

How can the connection between social phobia and problematic cannabis use be explained? Buckner and her team explain that in socially anxious people, the motivation for smoking weed is more shaped by “coping with” unpleasant feelings. A research group led by study leader Michael Zvolensky achieved a similar result. According to this, especially strong stoners functionalize their consumption to cope with anxiety symptoms.

The technical term “coping”, which comes from the English, describes this behavior, which is also known from drinking alcohol. Anxious people use the relaxing effects of a drug to ease their fear of social situations. However, this in turn could result in them avoiding social situations for fear that they would not be able to behave appropriately in the intoxicated state. After all, fear of criticism from other people is an expression of social phobia.

Self-handicapping theory

To get an indication of when exactly socially anxious stoners use the joint, Julia Buckner equipped students who regularly smoke weed with small portable computers in another study. In it, the participants were asked to record their current craving for cannabis, their actual consumption and the extent of their anxiety at the respective point in time over a period of two weeks several times a day.

The results show that stoners with social phobia indulge in craving for cannabis more often than the other test subjects. They used the joint particularly often in situations in which they felt anxious and other people smoking weed were also present. On the other hand, when they were with people who did not smoke pot, the likelihood of cannabis use actually decreased with increasing anxiety.

Bruckner and her colleagues suspect that socially anxious stoners are less able to cope with stress and, accordingly, they give in more quickly when the craving for cannabis causes stress. The research team names the so-called self-handicapping theory as a possible explanatory approach. As a result, socially anxious people expect cannabis use to have a negative impact on their behavior and assume that other people will interpret their behavior as a result of cannabis use and not see it as a characteristic of the person. In other words, the fear of being ridiculous in front of others is allayed by the fact that they are actually and obviously not behaving normally, but signaling to others that it is due to the effects of cannabis and not to them as a person.

"Procrastination" more pronounced

Smoking weed to deal with fear, however, is not a particularly effective “coping behavior”. Rather, it creates new problems, as another study from the USA makes clear. The US scientist Nicholas Van Dam and his research team surveyed over 10,000 cannabis users via the Internet to investigate the phenomenon in more detail. After data adjustment, the information from 2,567 consumers was included in the analysis. 275 of them, around 11 percent, were found to have a clinically meaningful anxiety disorder, i.e. some form of phobia. For comparison, another 275 cannabis users without an anxiety disorder were selected from the sample, who did not differ from the stoners with an anxiety disorder in terms of age, gender and education.

On the one hand, the comparison of the two groups made it clear again that fear is to a large extent related to the extent of cannabis use. Anxious stoners consumed significantly more cannabis per week as non-fearful. Second, the fearful stoners reported more problems resulting from cannabis use. The connection was strongest with the so-called Procrastination. With the problem, also known colloquially as "procrastination", important tasks are often not done or "put on the back burner".

Cannabis users with anxiety disorders also suffered more often from memory and sleep problems and from a lack of energy. They were more likely to have financial difficulties and feel less productive. In addition, more often than other stoners they felt guilty about their consumption.


People who suffer from social anxiety and who use cannabis are particularly at risk of developing problematic use and even addiction. The results of the study by Julia Buckner's research group reveal another aspect that is particularly important for those people who want to reduce their cannabis consumption: If smoking weed is (also) motivated to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, this could be precisely what should come to light Consumption restricted or discontinued.

However, if cannabis use is continued to “self-treat” the fears, subsequent problems can increase. It is more effective to reduce or stop cannabis use and at the same time develop alternative coping strategies against social anxiety. For this, however, it is advisable to take advantage of expert support as part of a consultation or therapy.


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