Can CBD Reduce Performance Anxiety? – A Scientific Review

By Angela Boyce, BA – Co-owner of Primo Gardens Inc. – Short North
Columbus, Ohio

Whether you are seeking a promotion or better outcomes for your sports team, performance is essential. For many, the pressure to perform can become overwhelming, and can even lead to performance anxiety. Those shaking hands, racing thoughts, and self-doubt can make it difficult to focus on the task at hand. What most people don’t realize is that high levels of stress can lead to health concerns that reduce performance both mentally and physically.   This article will explain why CBD could potentially help athletes become more resistant to chronic stressors and reduce the impact of chronic stress induced depression and anxiety. Furthermore, the psychological factors that increase anxiety and decrease performance could be more manageable with the use of CBD.

Very few athletes achieve high levels of performance in their sport. For example:

  • Of all high school football athletes, only 7.3% go on to play in the NCAA, and only 2.9% play Division 1 (NCAA.org 2020). 
  • Of those total NCAA football players, about 22% are eligible for the NFL draft, and of all draft eligible football players, only 3.8% actually get drafted by a professional football team. 

So, in an environment where performance is imperative in order to make it to the next level, the pressures are high.

It’s the hundreds to millions of spectators watching your every move, comparing you to your opponent, or the parents in your ear pushing you to be better. It’s the coach that always emphasizes the negatives, yet fails to notice the positives, and it’s the constant pain and exhaustion after hours of practicing. 

There are many stressors that an elite athlete faces every day, and it’s how an athlete copes with stress that can make all the difference in performance. Generally, sports performance can be thought of as the pursuit and display of excellence, and there are many factors that can play a role. There are physiological factors such as strength, speed, endurance, repeated-sprint ability, or maximal aerobic capacity which are all great indicators of performance depending on the sport and position. However, what most people don’t realize is that psychological factors can have a huge impact on performance, and, in extreme cases, psychological factors can override physiological functioning. 

In high pressure environments, psychological performance becomes crucial to the success of an athlete, and it is much more than motivation. Mental health has become a rising health concern for many people, but specifically the mental health of athletes has become front page news. With world-renowned athletes such as Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka exposing the unimaginable psychological trauma they have endured; people are now paying attention to the questions we must ask. Why is this happening? 

What we are finding is that there is no straight-forward answer. There is no equation to mental health because everyone experiences and processes stress differently. However, if we look at the science of the circumstances an athlete endures within their sport, we can better understand the psychological mechanisms and how to reduce the impact of stressors. 

Naturally, in high stress circumstances, the human brain activates the stress response, where the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland produces and releases cortisol into the bloodstream. So, when an athlete endures a high stress situation, their stress response is activated, and cortisol is released into the bloodstream, which is generally thought of as a good thing for performance. However, high levels of cortisol over long periods of time (Hypercortisolism) can have adverse effects. Hypercortisolism can contribute to weight gain, insomnia, tissue breakdown, a suppressed immune system, tissue inflammation, and interference with other hormones. In the context of performance anxiety, high levels of cortisol can lead to stress induced anxiety and depression. And here’s how: 

It has been found (Yang & Wang 2017) that high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period can lead to increased activity levels and number of neural pathways in the amygdala. Additionally, with the increased number of pathways, the amygdala can become more reactive to stressors. While amygdala activity rises, the connections in the hippocampus and the hypothalamus pituitary axis weaken which can adversely impact stress control as well as other functions such as learning and memory. When applied to sports performance training, high stress training over a prolonged period reduces the athlete’s ability to learn and retain information. 

It has also been found (Tafet et al. 2001) that high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods of time impair serotonergic activity. Essentially, the dysregulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and, therefore, cortisol hyperactivity, limits the amount of serotonin that the body produces. Low levels of serotonin have been significantly linked to depressive episodes and major depressive disorder, and when low levels of serotonin are caused by cortisol hyperactivity, it is referred to as chronic stress induced depression (Tafet et al. 2001). 

Another study (Ma et al. 2021) found that chronic unexpected mild stress leads to decreased activity in regions of the brain such as vCA1 (located in the hippocampus) and pBLA (basal lateral amygdala). The decreased excitatory response in the vCA1 and pBLA regions contribute to neuronal damage and brain mass shrinkage (Ma et al. 2021). Damaged vCA1 can result in impaired spatial memory, and damage to the vCA1/BLA innervation can result in impairment of emotion-related memory (Yang & Wang 2017). So, essentially if an athlete experiences high stress circumstances repeatedly over a prolonged period, they are more susceptible to stress induced anxiety and depression. Additionally, high cognitive anxiety is correlated with lower performance levels among many other things. 

So how can CBD potentially reduce performance inhibiting factors such as performance anxiety? There has been promising research showing that CBD may be beneficial to reduce anxiety such as:

  • “Effects of ipsapirone and cannabidiol on human experimental anxiety” by Zuardi et al. published in 1993, 
  • “Cannabidiol as a Potential Treatment for Anxiety Disorders” by Blessing et al. published in 2015, and
  •  “Use of cannabidiol in anxiety and anxiety-related disorders” by Skelly et al. published in 2020 to name a few. 

However, for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the studies that have focused on the role CBD can play in neural pathways such as “Amygdala-hippocampal innervation modulates stress-induced depressive-like behaviors through AMPA receptors” by Ma et al. published in 2021 which helps explain why CBD can potentially reduce the impact of stress induced anxiety and depression on performance. 

Since chronic unpredictable mild stress (CUMS) leads to decreased activity and damage to some brain regions, such as the vCA1 and pBLA (Ma et al 2021), the hippocampal-pituitary-axis becomes dysregulated, and the amygdala becomes hyperactive (Yang & Wang 2017). CBD has been found (Ma et al 2021) to be potentially beneficial in reducing stress induced anxiety and depression by increasing the activity of the vCA1 and pBLA. In the same study, CBD was found to reverse CUMS-induced damage and even reduce depressive-like behaviors, “Acute CBD administration reversed CUMS-induced reduction in mature spine density and synaptosomal AMPAR level in vCA1, and, more importantly, alleviated depressive-like behaviors” (Ma et al 2021). 

Essentially, CBD helps increase healthy neural activity and strengthen those neural pathways to become more resistant to chronic stressors. What does this mean for sports performance? This means that CBD could potentially help athletes become more resistant to chronic stressors and reduce the impact of chronic stress induced depression and anxiety. Furthermore, the psychological factors that increase anxiety and decrease performance could be more manageable with the use of CBD. 

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