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People with social phobia are seven times more likely to be addicted to cannabis than the general population. Should you still consider medical marijuana to relieve your social anxiety disorder symptoms?

Medical marijuana has risen in popularity in recent times — in 28 states and DC now have medical cannabis programs, with an estimated 1,5 million legal users across the US [1, 2] With marijuana considered helpful for people with wide-ranging medical conditions, from cancer to HIV and from multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease to mental disorders, it is no surprise that people who were diagnosed with social anxiety disorder might consider it too. Cannabis has a reputation for allowing you to relax and improve your mood, after all. 

We know that large numbers of people with social anxiety disorder use cannabis both as a coping mechanism for their symptoms and to help them achieve conforming behaviors [3], but should they? The body of available scientific literature offers some fascinating insights that you will absolutely want to be aware of if you have social phobia and are using cannabis or considering it, either for recreational reasons or as a relaxation technique for anxiety

Social Anxiety Disorder: An Often Debilitating Condition

Social phobia or social anxiety disorder involves an intense, overwhelming fear of social situations that is objectively disproportionate to any real (social) dangers those interactions may involve. When confronted with situations they fear, people with social phobia can experience detrimental physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, trembling, muscle tension, and stomach aches. Social phobia can be so debilitating that those who struggle with it go to great lengths to avoid situations they fear, leading to extreme social isolation. [4]

It is not strange, then, that social phobia can lead people to stop attending school, to find themselves unable to hold down a job, and that leading a normal life can become almost impossible — social anxiety disorder can lead to severe disability, and many who have it describe themselves as "low functioning. [5]

What's more, research indicates that 80 percent of social anxiety disorder patients do not receive treatment for their disorder [4], something that could partially be explained by the fact that social phobia makes people reluctant to interact with authority figures and to engage in situations where all attention is focused on them — both of which perfectly describe most therapeutic settings. 

If you have social anxiety and think weed might be a valuable self-medication tool, you are not alone, and at first glance, your thoughts make a whole lot of sense. There is, unfortunately, a lot more to the story.

Warning: Social Anxiety Places You At Risk Of Cannabis Addiction And Marijuana Side Effects 

Adults with social anxiety disorder are, research shows, seven times more likely to develop a cannabis addiction than the general population [6]. Adolescents with social phobia, too, are more vulnerable to a dependence on weed — they are addicted at a rate five times higher than people without this disorder [7].

No other mental disorder has been associated with cannabis dependence as strongly as social anxiety disorder, something that places cannabis users with social anxiety disorder at much greater risk of some of the more negative consequences of regular weed use, including respiratory diseases, cancer, a higher rate of accidents, and academic underperformance. [8]

While your average weed user actively expects using marijuana to both facilitate tension relief and act as a type of "social gel", making it easier to interact with other people, studies likewise show that this is not the case among people with social phobia, who may actually experience greater tension, a harder time communicating with others, and an even lower mood after using pot. [8, 9]

It has thus been hypothesized that some people with social anxiety use cannabis of a means of self-handicapping — a coping mechanism wherein someone sabotages any potential of improvement in order to avoid damage to self-esteem and to manage the expectations of other people, who will blame substance abuse rather than the person's underlying mental condition. [10]

Another possible reason for weed use among people with social phobia is that using cannabis slows down the racing, anxious thoughts they otherwise experience, and to make reality appear "less real", again temporarily reducing anxiety. Weed can, in other words, serve as a supposed way to manage social interactions if you have social anxiety disorder, while potentially having quite the opposite effect, that of causing people with social phobia to sink further into social isolation.  [11]

What Does This Mean For You?

Given the fact that many people who would meet the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder if they sought treatment simply do not reach out for this treatment, meaning that they have to face the struggles associated with social phobia without the benefit of professional help, it is only logical that many cling onto something they think may help them, be it weed, alcohol, or other addictive substances. 

People with social anxiety disorder are at a much greater risk of marijuana addiction than the general population, however, something that is associated with greater negative effects from long-term cannabis use. 

If you think or know you have social phobia and have not started using cannabis as of yet but were considering it as a possible medication, it greatly appears that the risk-benefit balance is not in favor of choosing marijuana in this case.

If you have social anxiety disorder and are already using weed and have experienced negative side effects, you may wish to look into stopping the consumption of cannabis. In either case, research suggests that both talk therapy — including cognitive behavioral therapy — and SSRI antidepressants for anxiety are a safer treatment option for you. [12] You may likewise want to consider relaxation techniques for anxiety and herbs to treat anxiety disorders