Carol presented with concerns related to continuous panic attacks that were jeopardizing her work as a medical professional. “I can’t think straight when they happen and I cannot be this debilitated when I see patients,” she explained. Carol had also been self-medicating with alcohol on the weekends to “ease the stress.” Throughout a year and half of intensive therapy, Carol’s panic disorder began to subside, but her general anxiety continued. One day during therapy Carol announced, “I have not been anxious for two weeks!” Thrilled for her, I asked what had caused such a significant change. She looked sheepishly at me and whispered, “cannabis.” I inquired whether she had shifted to smoking marijuana versus drinking alcohol (which she had recently begun cutting back on). She quickly responded, “Oh no! That would get me fired from my job. I am taking a cannabidiol tincture.”
Geraldine came to therapy having returned from a year deployment to a country that is without sunlight for months at a time and has very limited pharmaceutical access. She had been without her medication for anxiety and depression and was feeling overwhelmed. “I can’t function,” she lamented. She had contacted a psychiatrist, but the only available appointment was a month away. We identified some tools she could use to help ease her symptoms while she waited, but they only worked for short periods of time. As a result, she was constantly anxious and depressed. Three weeks into our work together, Geraldine announced that she was feeling much better and attributed it to the cannabidiol-infused honey that she was using in her morning oatmeal.
Tim presented with depression and insomnia related to chronic pain caused by lupus. He had been taking psychotropic medication for years, but it no longer brought him any relief. Despite taking sleep aids, he was unable to get a good night’s sleep. Tim worked hard in therapy and was able to ease some, but not all, of his symptoms through regular mindfulness meditation. To my surprise, Tim appeared one afternoon smiling in delight. “I slept all night this week!” he exclaimed. Again, the answer to his dilemma was cannabidiol, which he consumed in capsules.
As a counselor, I strive to create the best evidence-based, holistic and individualized treatment plans through collaboration with my clients. In addition to traditional talk therapy, I use a variety of therapeutic approaches, including a wide range of expressive arts and animal and nature-assisted therapies. Recently multiple clients have reported symptom improvement through the use of an over-the-counter supplement that works with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). Approved in the form of an oral solution (Epidiolex) in June 2018 by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome — rare and severe forms of epilepsy — cannabidiol (CBD) has also drawn interest as a therapeutic agent for use on a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders.
What is cannabidiol?
CBD is a naturally derived, non-psychoactive hemp derivative. Proponents describe CBD as a food supplement that provides the therapeutic element of cannabis without tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the component that produces a high. It can be found as a tincture, vapor, infused in honey or creams and is used in food products such as smoothies. Reported side effects include possible positive drug screening results, appetite changes and sleepiness.
How does it work?
CBD affects the ECS, which consists of endogenous cannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and the enzymes that synthesize and degrade endocannabinoids. As noted in a 2018 article in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, research has found that the ECS plays a significant role modulating physiological functions such as mood, cognition, pain perception and “feeding behavior.” The ECS also interacts with the immune system and moderates inflammatory processes. Animal studies and anecdotal observations have shown that modulating the ECS can have beneficial effects on mood, but the authors note that numerous additional factors, such as the placebo effect, could be influencing these findings.
Research that focuses specifically on targeting the ECS with CBD has also been intriguing. In a 2015 article appearing in the journal Neurotherapeutics, a review of studies on animal and limited human populations concluded that acute doses of CBD can reduce anxiety. The authors call for research on chronic doses and note that because past human studies of CBD were conducted with healthy volunteers, future work should focus on clinical populations.
Overall, current research indicates that CBD has significant potential as a treatment for a number of mood disorders.
What does this mean for counselors?
As counselors, it is important to be informed about supplements clients are using to manage mental and physical disease. While we cannot prescribe medications and should refer clients to their doctors for medical advice around pharmacology and supplements, we do have a duty to provide our clients with psychoeducation and research.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Counselors should be aware that according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) statement issued in December 2018, although hemp has been removed from the Controlled Substances Act, it is still illegal to add CBD to consumer food products or to market it as a dietary supplement.
Some jurisdictions, such as the cities of New York and Los Angeles, have begun ordering restaurants to stop selling food containing CBD. The FDA is not currently preventing the manufacture of CBD as a dietary supplement. However, counselors and clients should be aware that like all dietary supplements, those containing CBD are not subject to set standards regarding dose or strength.
Learn more about risk management issues related to client marijuana use (ACA members only): counseling.org/docs/default-source/risk-management/ct-risk-management-july-2018.pdf
FDA statement on CBD cannabis regulation: fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm628988.htm
FDA and marijuana Q+A: fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm421168.htm#enforcement_action
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.