Marijuana and Anxiety: It’s Complicated
If you live with anxiety, you’ve probably come across some of the many claims surrounding the use of marijuana for anxiety symptoms.
Plenty of people consider marijuana helpful for anxiety. A 2017 national survey of more than 9,000 Americans found that 81 percent believed marijuana had one or more health benefits. Nearly half of these respondents listed “anxiety, stress, and depression relief” as one of these potential benefits.
But there also seems to be just as many people who say marijuana makes their anxiety worse.
So, what’s the truth? Is marijuana good or bad for anxiety? We’ve rounded up the research and talked to some therapists to get some answers.
Before getting into the ins and outs of marijuana and anxiety, it’s important to understand that marijuana contains two main active ingredients, THC and CBD.
- THC is the psychoactive compound responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana.
- CBD is the nonpsychoactive compound that’s used for a range of potential therapeutic purposes.
There’s no question that many people use marijuana for anxiety.
“Many clients I’ve worked with have reported using cannabis, including THC, CBD, or both, to reduce anxiety,” says Sarah Peace, a licensed counselor in Olympia, Washington.
Commonly reported benefits of marijuana use include:
- increased sense of calm
- improved relaxation
- better sleep
Peace says her clients have reported these benefits along with others, including greater peace of mind and a reduction in symptoms they found unbearable.
Peace explains her clients have reported that marijuana in particular helps relieve symptoms of:
- social anxiety
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including flashbacks or trauma responses
- panic disorder
- sleep disruptions related to anxiety
What Peace sees in her practice is on par with most of the existing research around marijuana and anxiety.
A 2015 review supports CBD as a potentially helpful treatment for anxiety, particularly social anxiety. And there’s some evidence that THC may also help in low doses.
It’s not a full cure, though. Instead, most people report it helps reduce their overall distress.
“For example, someone might only have one panic attack a day instead of several. Or maybe they can go grocery shopping with high but manageable levels of anxiety, when before they couldn’t leave the house,” Peace explains.
While marijuana appears to help some people with anxiety, it has the opposite effect for others. Some simply don’t notice any effect, while others experience worsening symptoms.
What’s behind this discrepancy?
THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, seems to be a big factor. High levels of THC have been associated with increased anxiety symptoms, such as increased heart rate and racing thoughts.
In addition, marijuana doesn’t appear to offer the same long-term effects as other anxiety treatments, including psychotherapy or medication. Using marijuana may offer some much-needed temporary relief, but it’s not a long-term treatment option.
“I think, like any medicine, cannabis can provide support,” Peace says. “But without lifestyle changes or internal work on mental health, if your stressors or anxiety triggers remain, your anxiety will likely remain in some form.”
While marijuana might seem like a way to avoid the potential side effects associated with prescription medication, there are still some downsides to consider.
Negative side effects
- increased heart rate
- increased sweatiness
- racing or looping thoughts
- problems with concentration or short-term memory
- irritability or other changes in mood
- hallucinations and other symptoms of psychosis
- confusion, brain fog, or a “numb” state
- decreased motivation
- difficulty sleeping
Smoking and vaping marijuana can lead to lung irritation and breathing problems in addition to increasing your risk for certain types of cancer.
Plus, vaping is linked to a recent increase in potentially life threatening lung injuries.
Dependence and addiction
Contrary to popular belief, both addiction and dependence are possible with marijuana.
Peace shares that some of her clients have a hard time finding a line between medical use and misuse with daily or regular cannabis use.
“Those who use it frequently to numb themselves or keep from caring about the things causing them stress also often report feeling like they are addicted to cannabis,” Peace says.
When using marijuana, you’ll also need to consider the laws in your state. Marijuana is only currently legal for recreational use in 11 states as well as the District of Columbia. Many other states allow use of medical marijuana, but only in certain forms.
If marijuana isn’t legal in your state, you may face legal consequences, even if you’re using it to treat a medical condition, such as anxiety.
If you’re curious about trying marijuana for anxiety, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk for it worsening your anxiety symptoms.
Consider these tips:
- Go for CBD over THC. If you’re new to marijuana, start with a product that contains only CBD or a much higher ratio of CBD to THC. Remember, higher levels of THC are what tend to make anxiety symptoms worse.
- Go slow. Start with a low dose. Give it plenty of time to work before using more.
- Purchase marijuana from a dispensary. Trained staff can offer guidance based on the symptoms you’re looking to treat and help you find the right type of marijuana for your needs. When you buy from a dispensary, you also know you’re getting a legitimate product.
- Know about interactions. Marijuana can interact with or reduce the effectiveness of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including vitamins and supplements. It’s best to let your healthcare provider know if you’re using marijuana. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can also talk to a pharmacist.
- Tell your therapist. If you’re working with a therapist, make sure to loop them in, too. They can help you evaluate how well it’s working for your symptoms and offer additional guidance.
Marijuana, particularly CBD and low levels of THC, shows possible benefit for temporarily reducing anxiety symptoms.
If you decide to try marijuana, keep in mind it does increase anxiety for some people. There’s really no way to know how it will affect you before you try it. It’s best to use it cautiously and stick to smaller doses.
Other nonmedical treatments can also help relieve anxiety symptoms. If you’re looking for alternative approaches to treatment, consider giving other self-care approaches a try, like:
It may take some trial and error, but with time you can find a treatment that works for you.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Last medically reviewed on December 15, 2019
Why does marijuana help some people's anxiety symptoms and worsen those of others?
How To Combat Cannabis-Caused Anxiety
Cannabis is usually used to treat anxiety. However, it can cause exactly the same effect in some people. What does a cannabis anxiety feel like? And how do you deal with the symptoms?
Cannabis is one of the most powerful alternative medications on the planet. Many turn to it for relief for a range of physical and mental symptoms – including anxiety. Unfortunately, many people sometimes experience the exact opposite. Cannabis can cause panic and anxiety attacks in some individuals.
There are a couple of things you can do about this phenomenon. Other than just stop ingesting cannabis of course. The first most important thing is to realize what is happening to you. Recognition of the symptoms is the first step; dealing them is the next. Research is also a very important tool. There are some strains that have been bred to combat these kinds of feelings.
Best of all? There is also a good source of relief in another cannabinoid. Keep reading to find out which one.
WHAT DOES CANNABIS ANXIETY FEEL LIKE?
Anxiety is anxiety. We have all felt it. Some people call it “paranoia.” Others describe this as a panic attack. Essentially it is the feeling that something bad is going to happen. Or could happen. In turn, it causes a physical reaction – the body tenses up. Some people sweat. Others experience a racing heartbeat. The mind can loop on potentialities for a long time.
It is an absolutely horrible experience. It can occur on its own or as part of other symptomology.
Cannabis – more specifically certain cannabinoids, including CBD and THC, work in many cases to quell these feelings. Again it is not entirely understood why, but in some individuals, cannabis ingestion can cause the same, prickly, uncomfortable feelings.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A CANNABIS CAUSED PANIC ATTACK
The first problem, of course, is that these feelings are hard to pinpoint. This can also cause anxiety too. On top of that, many people turn to cannabis for relief of such symptoms – even if they do not recognize it. Many people who describe themselves as “recreational users” are actually people self-medicating, trying to relieve the tension of the day and the stress and anxiety that go with it.
If however, you begin to feel worse rather than better after lighting up, that is one sign.
Another sign is the desire to check outside the window for the cops. Unless you have recently robbed a bank, this “reality” you might be worried about is not about to happen.
You have to be observant of yourself in such situations, which is also never easy.
However, if you feel like this condition is happening to you after you have toked up, don’t panic. In fact, that is the worst thing you can do. You can bring yourself down fairly quickly, and after it is over, don’t worry. You can always go shopping for another strain that does not tend to cause these kinds of effects.
HOW TO RELIEVE A PANIC ATTACK IN PROGRESS
If you realize you are in the middle of a panic attack or feel rising anxiety caused by cannabis, good. That is the first step.
Second, take deep breaths. Try to ground yourself in the “now.” This will allow you to take immediate, concrete steps to make this feeling go away. Stepping outside for a few minutes might also do the trick. So does taking a quick shower. Or even sticking your head under the tap while running cold water over the nape of the neck.
Third, try to eat or drink something. It will have an instant impact on the chemicals in your bloodstream. What you eat or drink is also very important. Try a glass of lemonade, or a piece of fresh mango. These are laden in terpenes – just like cannabis in fact. And terpenes like pinene, myrcene, and caryophyllene all calm anxiety. They are also found in other foods too, like citrus fruit.
Now you have your feet and brain more or less back on track, continue to stay physically and or mentally “busy.” You could listen to music. You could go to the mall (although driving is a bad idea). You could clean the basement. The point is, the more you move, the better you will feel. The more you distract yourself in real time, the more you focus on your immediate surroundings, and the less your brain will wrap itself around disturbing distractions.
Remember, this will not last forever.
SWITCH YOUR CANNABINOIDS
Are you sweating bullets every time you take a toke of THC? If so, it is time to have a hard discussion with yourself. You might be one of those people for whom cannabis is not such a great thing. It is not the end of the world.
However before you come to this conclusion, there are other alternatives.
The first is to do your research – if you can – on what kinds of cannabis is bred specifically for “low anxiety” responses. Look for user guides. In general, the more “fruity” the aura of the cannabis, the less anxiety it will cause. Why? The same chemicals in citrus fruit are found in the plant.
Cannabis with lower THC also seems to cause fewer anxiety attacks in users. CBD, for example, does not cause panic attacks at all. If it is the psychoactive ingredient that causes you to have heebie jeebies, you may have to do without it.
CBD AS THE GO-TO PANIC ATTACK RELIEVER
CBD is in fact also a cannabinoid in its own right. Further, people who have panic attacks caused by THC may find this is their first and best line of defense. CBD occurs naturally in cannabis plants. It can, just like THC, be bred into higher percentages in strains. Some cannabis, in fact, has only trace elements of THC.
CBD also has a direct impact on how THC acts in the bloodstream. It is still not known exactly how this happens. However, one of the noted impacts already of CBD? It helps counteract the psychoactive effects of THC.
If you have had such reactions in the past, now is the time to take control. And even better news? This does not necessarily have to be as drastic as giving up on all THC. Do some strain research. Many high THC strains are also bred for high CBD. This might do the trick alone. A few drops of CBD oil under the tongue before you toke might be just the ticket.
While cannabis is frequently used to treat anxiety, it can also cause it. Here is how to recognize, treat, and avoid the symptoms.