“Self-medication” is a term often connected with cannabis use. There is a lot of research that discusses the positives and negatives of using cannabis to treat emotional disorders, particularly in relation to depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Research focusing on young adults suggest that in this group self-medication for emotional disorders is high.

There is a growing body of research, however, that suggests that using cannabis makes mood disorders worse. A large scale study in the Netherlands showed that cannabis use predicted an increase in bipolar disorder and depression. In emotion processing tasks where cannabis users are asked to identify emotional expressions in faces, like smiles or frowns, cannabis users brains respond with a different pattern of neuron activity compared to non-users. This is also true of those cannabis users who score highly on pre-depression measures.

What isn’t clear is whether cannabis use changes the brain’s response, or if the differences were already there. Are these changes in brain activity signs of increased depression, or are they signs of cannabis providing relief from a dysfunctional emotion processing system?

Abuse, Or Self-Medication?

Synthetic cannabis use has been shown to be beneficial in treating night terrors in PTSD sufferers. But there is also a large body of data showing that PTSD sufferers are more likely to become dependent on a variety of substances, including cannabis. Is this abuse, or self-medication?

Like any drug treatment plan, there is a huge amount of individual variability in how people respond physically and mentally to cannabis. While we already know that cannabis isn’t a physically addictive chemical, it is possible to fall into dependency cycles that revolve around it, and as the studies we’ve mentioned show, people with emotional disorders are more likely to display that dependency.

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It is important to consider age, too, as cannabis affects the developing brain very differently to the mature brain. In younger people especially, those with a predisposition to mood disorders might want to be more careful when using cannabis for mood regulation. We still don’t fully understand how all of the endocannabinoids in cannabis work, or what kinds of side effects they can produce in these situations, but we do know that they do something to developing brains.

Is Cannabis a Miracle Cure?

It’s not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. There is no “magic pill” for any condition, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence surrounding the use of cannabis to regulate emotional disorders. Researchers are still working to determine the exact role cannabis can play in mental health, and early research indicates that it may become a helpful tool in a battery of possible treatment plans. It looks promising on many fronts, but it’s crucial to be respectful of the science. It isn’t necessarily the right treatment plan for all cases and pretending that it is undercuts its medical value.

Even when there are individual accounts supporting the use of cannabis for moderating emotional disorders, be careful about recommending it to others. Diagnosing a mental health problem is a complex process that involves a trained psychologist that has the ability to use a wide variety of screening tools and assessment methods. Using cannabis products to treat any medical issue is both self-diagnosis and self-medication, which has the potential to be exceedingly dangerous.

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Accepting that cannabis use for treating emotional disorders might have significant risk for some people as well as having benefits for others is crucial. Respecting this is the only way we can move forward responsibly in a progressive way and stop cannabis demonization.