Mindfulness & Anxiety

My Story | CBD Helped Me Manage Anxiety—and Stress-Induced Alopecia

By Kathleen Wong

Sitting in my parked car, I looked at the clock. Five minutes until my watercolor painting class began. Here goes nothing. I unscrewed the small bottle of cannabidiol oil in my hands and scraped the sides of the dropper on its neck, watching the excess thick oil slide off. I held the dropper above my mouth and carefully let one drop plop onto my tongue like a raindrop. The oil tasted like the earth, piney and unsweetened. I paused for 30 seconds and repeated the process five times. Then I got out of my car to sit in a three-hour-long art class.

In class, I stared at the clock, waiting to suddenly feel high or to officially debunk a wellness fad. It had been 15 minutes. Now 20. Sometime between 20 and 30 minutes, I noticed how the watercolor paints beautifully swirled in my water cup, something I usually don’t pay attention to. As I painted, I wasn’t held back by my typical fear of not doing a good job. I just let my hands move, totally enjoying myself. It was a subtle shift into the present moment, significant for someone with anxiety.

That evening, about three months ago, was my introduction to CBD oil, a hopeful solution to managing my stress and anxiety, which hit their pinnacle (or is the better way to phrase it, rock bottom?) earlier this year. Talking to my friends, family and even a therapist were no longer enough to handle the anxiety I was recently going through. It was unprecedented, even for me.

Back in February, I was getting ready to shower when I ran my hands through the back of my hair and touched something fleshy, smooth, and just not right. I asked my sister to take a look at it and she gasped. It was a dollar-sized bald spot caused by alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks your hair follicles. It is believed to be triggered by stress (or at least, stress doesn’t help it). At the time, I was in the middle of interviewing for a dream job (that I ultimately didn’t get, but alas consumed me anyway), struggling with my social relationships, and overall pretty unhappy in New York. I guess you can say I was stressed.

So, I accepted a different job and moved to Hawaii. I started taking a drugstore amount of supplements (Vitamin D, Biotin, B-12 Complex, the list goes on), signed up for a yoga membership, and added a meditation app to my bedtime routine. I was also prescribed an antidepressant, but forwent taking it when I read accounts of other patients noticing rapid hair loss while on it.

Still, nothing worked. Over the next few months, I continued to shed hair—and my confidence. I ended up with a total of about 13 spots of various sizes on the back of my head and around the top of my head. “You need to relax,” my dad kept saying.

Here’s the kicker: Having alopecia areata is extremely stressful in and of itself, and it provides a horde of new things to stress about. I examined my pillow every morning for stray hairs and oh god, maybe eyelashes. I dreaded washing my hair, counting every strand that came out when I rinsed. With a tendency to spiral, I found myself crying about the alopecia at work, on the bus, at home—anywhere I was reminded of my current situation, which was kind of everywhere. What if the spots on the back of my head combine into one impossible-to-cover monster? What if I lose all the hair at the top of my head, how ridiculous will I look? Who would date me? Is my spot showing? Did my coworker see it? Then I felt guilty for caring about something so cosmetic.

On a thread in an alopecia areata subreddit, people kept mentioning CBD oil as a useful tool for helping them relax. Turns out, they might be onto something. ”

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It was like a wake-up call that whatever I was doing was not enough for handling my anxiety. I needed to try something different. On a thread in an alopecia areata subreddit, people kept mentioning CBD oil as a useful tool for helping them relax. Turns out, they might be onto something. According to Brook Henry, an assistant research scientist at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Medical Cannabis Research and department of psychiatry, there are a number of reports in rats and humans showing CBD as effective at decreasing anxiety by reducing activity in areas that are known to induce anxiety, such as the amygdala. Unlike its cousin, THC, which I’m more familiar with, CBD has no psychoactive effects and doesn’t really affect one’s physiological function (or that sometimes paranoid feeling of being high.)

“One could describe CBD is the ‘kinder, gentler’ cousin of THC; they are similar in many respects and may both help to reduce pain and inflammation, but heavy or long-term use of THC could have significantly greater negative effects,” Henry tells me.

In other words, it was worth a shot. I spoke to my doctors and therapist and bit the bullet and invested in a tiny but expensive bottle of CBD oil from my local hemp shop, which led me to my first dosing in art class. That night was the first in a long time when I was just present in what I was doing, unanchored by those anxious what if questions. From that evening on, I’ve been experimenting with dosage and timing, using it when I feel an uneasy day coming on or if I’m nervous about an upcoming event. It’s an understated shift from a buzzing brain into a contently silent one—as if someone just lowered the volume on my internal thoughts. It’s become a staple in my mental health repertoire.

I know that CBD is not the cure-all to instantly zapping away a downward spiral or anxiety, but those subtle moments of chilling out help me remember that mental tranquility is out there even if my bottle is not around.

As for my hair, well, time has passed and with my toolbox for relaxation larger than ever, my many little spots now sport many little baby hairs. I haven’t noticed it too much though, or at least I’ve been pretty chill about it.

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