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Eye-tracking study finds heavy cannabis user avoid anxiety-provoking stimuli

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People who use marijuana heavily have reactions to anxiety-inducing stimuli that resemble those of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, according to a study to be published in the journal Addictive Behaviors Reports.

Psychological tests of people’s reactions to threatening and non-threatening pictures have shown that people with anxiety disorders exhibit a pattern of eye movements that differs from people without these disorders. Those suffering from anxiety disorders have a tendency to focus their eyes on threatening images for shorter lengths of time, compared with others, a phenomenon known as attentional bias. For example, people with specific phobias fix their eyes for less time on images of the objects they fear.

Although the lengths of time involved in these assessments are measured in nanoseconds, psychologists believe that they reveal a tendency to avoid processing information about anxiety-inducing stimuli, which may be counterproductive for overcoming these fears.

Two researchers, Thomas Wilcockson  of Lancaster University, and Nilihan Sanal, of Swansea University, examined attitudinal bias among eight daily marijuana users and 15 control participants who had never used the drug. All participants performed an experimental task in which they were briefly shown two pictures simultaneously, one of which contained a small dot.

The participants had to identify which picture contained the dot as quickly as possible. While they were performing this task, their eye movements were monitored by cameras to determine how quickly and for how long of a duration their eyes fixed on each image. Each pair contained one image that was threatening (for example, a rattlesnake) and one that was emotionally neutral (for example, a book). Participants were also assessed for symptoms of anxiety.

Results of the eye monitoring tests indicated that the heavy marijuana users spent significantly less time fixing their eyes to the threatening images than to the neutral images. The control participants did not exhibit this attitudinal bias. This pattern is similar to that which has been found in studies comparing people suffering from anxiety disorders with controls. There were no differences between the two groups in terms of anxiety symptoms, however, suggesting that any anxiety impact that marijuana use may have had took place at the level of implicit processing, rather than on a conscious level.

The study authors conclude that the presence of attitudinal biases related to anxiety-inducing stimuli may suggest that heavy marijuana use has the potential to increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Alternatively, they suggest it is possible that some people prone to anxiety disorders may engage in heavy marijuana use as a means of self-medicating. In either case, marijuana users and mental health professionals may want to take note of these potential links when it comes to assessing risk for anxiety disorders.


  • Fools. It’s about controlling your sensory experience.

    • YouPoorVictim

      Those idiot experts and their peer-reviewed study. Good call, guy on internet with sexually explicit avatar–you sir, have it all figured out.

      • It’s never the results themselves, necessarily, just the idiotic leaps in logic these idiots make. You seem like a loser internet troll… enjoy waiting for that half-day… probably struggling to pay down student debt.

        • YouPoorVictim

          “You seem like a jobless internet troll”

          I’m at work. Your comment was trolling, which is why I shamed you.

          “probably struggling to pay down student debt.”

          Not exactly, but, are you saying you don’t have any education, or Mommy and Daddy paid for it?

          • you should have at least pointed out my error… that you could be jobless and waiting for a half day…

            but no, i didn’t finish my undergrad

            decided that operating a successful business would be a better idea than slaving away being someone’s bitch

            at least you can find some free time to troll instead of doing your job

          • YouPoorVictim

            “but no, i didn’t finish my undergrad”

            You mean you failed out. Don’t pretend.

            “decided that operating a successful business would be a better idea than slaving away being someone’s bitch”

            Working for the fam?

      • Cup_of_STFU

        You think his avatar is sexually explicit? I’m guessing you also masturbate to the new and improved, nudity-free, super-sexually-explicit, Playboy magazines? Sexually suggestive, maybe.

  • Simon Moon

    Alternatively, they suggest it is possible that some people prone to anxiety disorders may engage in heavy marijuana use as a means of self-medicating.

  • jason_darrow

    I have an anxiety disorder and I used cannabis to self-medicate. So what? I like it 100x better than benzodiazepines or anti-depressants. I don’t use it any longer, but sure wish it was legal so I could have the option.

  • AJ

    True population of heavy marijuana users likely over 20 million. Sample size 23. No mention of the possibility of undiagnosed anxiety (very common) among those who reacted to the stimuli. Bad science.

  • Angelo Caiazzo

    LOL this study has no controls at all. Which pictures had the dots? What was the durational difference? Nanoseconds? Who was doing the timing, and on what? I don’t see a picture of a rattlesnake as threatening, do you? Nor does the concocted conclusion follow from the given evidence, nor have you established any connection between anxiety and images, or proven that giving X result on your test makes one prone to such anxiety disorders (which haven’t been defined). I wouldn’t accept this as a 6th grade experiment.

  • dave

    Not sure if cannabis related but Michael Scott on The Office always makes me embarrassed and anxious. I have to change the channel if friends is on, I cannot watch Jerry or that other guy Steve, Dangerous situations on television I biasly avoid.