Panic attacks are a severe form of anxiety, identified by intense episodes of fear coupled with physical symptoms ranging from shortness of breath and dizziness, to shaking. In extreme cases, when panic attacks occur frequently, panic disorder (PD) is diagnosed.
For those suffering from panic disorder, the experience can be terrifying and emotionally debilitating. Unlike anxiety attacks, which are often short-lived and linked to some kind of immediate stressor, panic disorder causes regular panic attacks that seemingly come out of nowhere. The sudden onset of these episodes can cause even more anxiety and lead to low self-confidence and phobic avoidance – a phobia of visiting places associated with previous panic attacks. Unsurprisingly, this can severely limit a person’s day-to-day activities and take a toll on their overall wellbeing.
Classified as an anxiety disorder, PD is often treated with anti-anxiety medications, the most common being benzodiazepines. The downside to this particular class of drugs is the risk of dependency. There is also little evidence to suggest they offer an effective long-term solution. CBD, however, is making a name for itself as a safe natural alternative to these mainstream treatments, not only helping to potentially reduce panic attaks but also boasting a myriad other health benefits.
While research is limited, existing studies show how CBD acts on two very important systems to help reduce anxiety: serotonin receptors and the endocannabinoid system.
Low levels of serotonin, dubbed the ‘happy hormone’, is often associated with anxiety and depression, which is why selective serotonin reuptake inhibtors (SSRIs) tend to be the first line of treatment. But these come with a slew of side-effects and are shown to be only moderately effective. CBD delivers similar mood-enhancing benefits (without the side-effects) by activating the serotonin receptors, helping to boost the natural production of this feel-good chemical. But elevating one’s mood is only one aspect of treating PD – reducing anxiety levels is, arguably, key to limiting panic attacks. A study* into the effect of CBD on people with various anxiety disorders, including PD, showed how CBD was able to do just that by acting on certain receptors in different areas of the brain.
Perhaps even more encouraging for PD patients, is CBD’s potential to curb the onset of panic attacks by delivering an anti-panic effect. While research into what causes PD is ongoing, some experts believe it is linked to activity in certain parts of the brain that are responsible for our fear response. By altering this brain activity, CBD can help to hit pause on our built-in panic button, so to speak. An animal study** in 2017 found that by injecting different doses of CBD into the midbrain, the animals’ escape response, which can trigger panic attacks, was inhibited.
Equally important is CBD’s ability to help regulate the endocannabinoid system, which controls different functions in the body, including our stress response. When we’re exposed to any kind of stressor, the nervous system triggers a rush of adrenaline which sets off certain physical reactions, from increased blood pressure to a racing heart – both symptoms of panic attacks. By acting on particular receptors in the endocannabinoid system, CBD can help to normalise the nervous system, slowing down these physical reactions and bringing us out of this heightened state of panic.
Add to this CBD’s ability to promote better sleep – an important part of managing any type of anxiety – and it’s no wonder there’s a growing interest in this plant-based medicine as a therapeutic treatment.