According to NHS estimates, around 10 million people in the UK have a phobia, described as an ‘overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal’.
Fear of heights, public speaking and spiders are among the most common phobias in Britain.
But now scientists claim cannabidiol - the oil extracted from cannabis plants and which is enjoying a huge surge in popularity in the UK - could be a secret weapon in fighting the dread.
A team of psychiatric researchers from Utrecht University, the Netherlands, are focusing on the ‘endocannabinoid system’ - a physiological system that regulates the body’s responses to stress.
While the endocannabinoid system is active in everyone, in some cases it’s not functioning perfectly, which results in hormone imbalances and the exacerbation of fears.
And the Dutch experts say cannabidiol can ‘enhance’ this natural system and help overcome phobias - when used in conjunction with ‘exposure therapy’, where a patient is gradually exposed to the source of their anxiety.
Writing in the journal BMC Psychiatry this month, lead author Dr Johanna Baas says: “Phobic anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent psychiatric disorders and are burdensome in terms of loss of quality of life and work productivity.
“Evidence-based treatments are relatively successful in the majority of patients, especially exposure therapy.
“However, a substantial subset of patients fails to achieve or stay in remission.
“Preclinical and genetic research have yielded evidence that the cannabinoid system is involved in the extinction of fear, presumed to underlie the beneficial effects of exposure therapy in phobic disorders.
“A cannabinoid constituent that may enhance endocannabinoid signaling is cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component of cannabis. Hence, the addition of CBD to exposure therapy is expected to strengthen effects of treatment.”
Dr Baas and her team are about to embark on an 8 week study to see if their claims are true, and says it’s the very first investigation into CBD and phobias.
She adds: “This is the first trial to investigate whether the addition of CBD to exposure therapy is effective in reducing phobic symptoms in treatment refractory patients with social phobia or panic disorder with agoraphobia.”
The research will involve 72 patients with social phobias, like agoraphobia, where earlier treatments haven’t worked.
Alongside exposure therapy, they’ll be given 300 mg CBD - or a placebo - over the course of eight weeks and then asked to fill in a ‘Fear Questionnaire’ at three and six months after the trial.
And the news has been welcomed by cannabidiol expert Harry Singh, from UK supplier CBD Armour.
He says: “While CBD oil is growing in popularity in the UK, there remains a degree of scepticism in the scientific community about its benefits.
“If this study, and others like it, can help cement CBD oil’s place within the mainstream of legitimate research, then that’s to be welcomed.
“We get regular feedback from customers who inform us how their own lives have been transformed by CBD oil.
“And other recent studies, including one by the University of Colorado in the USA, have shown how cannabidiol can improve symptoms of anxiety while also promoting better sleep.”
Cannabidiol is perfectly legal in the UK and sold as a food supplement - as well as in skin and hair care products.
It’s extracted from cannabis plants but contains only trace amounts of the high-giving chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, aka ‘THC’.
A host of celebs have endorsed CBD, including the likes of Hollywood actresses Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow as well as supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio.
Meanwhile CBD-infused beauty products were also dished-out to guests at this month’s Oscars film awards.
Trilby Breckman, National Director of the charity Triumph over Phobia, is dubious as to whether CBD oil alone could combat anxiety and phobias.
But she suspects that, when used in conjunction with exposure therapy, it could prove promising.
She said: “There’s no doubt that exposure therapy is the main pathway to recovery from a phobia - it’s a tried and tested method.
“And if you can take something, such as CBD oil, which can reduce anxiety, it could make a patient more able to cope with the exposure therapy process and also more receptive to the treatment.
“If someone’s feeling really anxious, they have to take exposure therapy in very short bursts. But if someone’s feeling more relaxed, they can move at a quicker pace.
“I can’t see how the oil alone would ever cure a phobia. But I can see how combining the two elements could be beneficial.”
Meanwhile Trilby also suggests that phobias are becoming more and more ‘accepted’ in society in general.
She adds: “There’s been a definite shift in acceptance when it comes to phobias.
“People are taking phobias much more serious than they did in previous years, while anxiety is also part of the national conversation.
“Those who suffer phobias are not to be ridiculed.
“And there’s a growing awareness that the onset of a phobia can happen to anyone, at any time in their lives."