According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 19 million Americans suffer from specific phobias, with women being twice as likely to be affected as men. There are numerous phobias that can cause great difficulty in certain areas of the life of the person experiencing the fear, be it school, work, or a personal relationship. Phobia is characterized as an overwhelming and irrational fear of an object, place, or situation that is harmless but is perceived as dangerous. When confronted with the source of the phobia, whether agoraphobia, claustrophobia, aerophobia, arachnophobia, or acrophobia, distress and panic consumes the individual. Research has indicated that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may have the ability to aid in the treatment of phobias.
Symptom, Causes and Conventional Treatments
Phobias are long lasting and are often accompanied by various symptoms or reactions. There is an immediate and intense feeling of fear, panic, and anxiety when the individual is confronted with the source of the fear. Individuals also experience a feeling of powerlessness to control the irrational fear, along with physical reactions and sensations, which includes profuse sweating, rapid speech or inability to speak, rapid heartbeat, tight chest, difficulty breathing, dry mouth, dizziness and nausea. The causes of specific phobias are still a mystery, but there are some possible causes such as negative personal experiences like a frightening traumatic event, genetics or learned behavior, and changes in normal brain functioning.
Psychotherapy in the form of exposure-based therapy is considered the best way to overcome or treat specific phobias. For instance, a person who has cynophobia an excessive, irrational fear of dogs can be ameliorated through gradual, repeated exposure to dogs, including pictures, touching a dog, or anything related to thoughts or feelings associated with the phobia. The point of exposure-based therapy is to change the individual’s response to the object or situation that is the source of the fear. That being said, the cannabis compound THC is believed to have the ability to treat phobias.
THC Could Help Treat Phobia
In a 2013 study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan and published in the journal Neuropsychology, researchersdescribe the potential use of the oral, synthetic THC dronabinol to treat phobias and accomplish the extinction of fear. Prior animal model studies have demonstrated the successful use of THC in aiding to eliminate conditioned fear, which have paved the way for researchers to transition into trying to replicate similar results in studies involving humans.
The researchers at the University of Michigan conducted an experiment in which they exposed participants to conventional conditioning that saw participants associated an actual fear, dogs for example, with a conditioned stimulus, such as the sound of a whistle, they responded showing the same level of fear in both situations. In other words, the fear response was the same when dogs were presented and the whistle was blown.
Later, the participants were separated into two groups, in which 15 participants received a placebo, and 14 participants received the synthetic THC dronabinol 2 hours before the exposure-based therapy was initiated. At the point of extinction or when participants showed no fear response during the exposure-based therapy, the flooding process concluded. A skin conductance response was done 24 hours later to measure the participants’ fear, by assessing the level of electricity that the skin conducts. The degree of moisture secreted by the sweat glands is used to determine skin conductance response, and hence the level of emotional arousal-fear. The researchers concluded that the THC group of participants showed lower levels of skin conductance than the placebo group, which suggests that THC may have helped to prevent the recovery of conditioned fear. This study directly shows that pharmacy grade enhancement, or synthetic THC, could prove feasible in the extinction of fear that is characteristic of phobias, by using cannabinoid system modulators in humans.
While clinical research related to the effects of cannabis on phobia is sparse, the research that is available has shown that synthetic THC could play an effective role in preventing fear that is a primary feature of phobias. Lacking today is a proven drug treatment for particular phobias, however, many of the symptoms can be treated with specific medications. Exposure therapy has been typically used to treat phobias in an effective manner. Phobias are debilitating by nature and if cannabinoid therapies offer a safe and effective way of treating them, further research, development, and clinical testing are warranted to establish the extent to which THC can be effective at treating specific phobias.