“Shyness is nice, and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life
You’d like to.”
Right again, Morrissey. Millions of us suffer from debilitating shyness. The medical term is general social anxiety disorder, or SAD, and, by some reckoning, it’s the third most common psychological ailment, affecting about 7 percent of people globally. It’s also extremely well represented among cannabis users. Anywhere from almost a third to almost half of people who ever use marijuana also meet the criteria for SAD at some point.
SAD is essentially our fight-or-flight response run amok, until the act of mingling with strangers over cocktails and snacks feels as existentially threatening as facing down a ravenous sabertooth cat on an empty savannah.
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Medication can lessen the symptoms, but the preferred treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on training the mind to react differently to stressful situations. It may even include desensitization exercises, in which patients deliberately seek out stressful situations to confront.
This is obviously as scary as hell. It’s also a slow and potentially expensive process. That’s why many sufferers of SAD prefer to bolster themselves with a dose of “Dutch courage,” taking the edge off their anxiety with a nip of alcohol or a toke of marijuana.
Dr. Julia D. Buckner of Luisiana State University has made a career out of studying the links between extreme social anxiety and self-medication with cannabis. In the last decade or so she has coauthored at least half a dozen papers on the subject. It might seem much ado to prove something we all intuit is true, but she’s managed to put a number to it: Socially anxious people are 6.5 times more likely to be dependent on cannabis than their socially confident peers. They are also 4.5 more likely to use alcohol the same way. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that they are no more likely to abuse either drug than the general public does. In other words, anxious people find the dosage that works for them and they maintain it.
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Brain scans show that cannabis is active in regions that process fear and anxiety, but our understanding is still rudimentary. In fact, in its 2015 review of medical cannabis studies, JAMA found only one specifically addressing SAD that met its criteria. The results were favorable, although the study itself was determined to have a “high risk of bias.”
Whether or not cannabis is a medically sound treatment, many thousands of socially anxious individuals currently look to it for relief.