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This Is Why Weed Makes Some People Anxious

As a type A person—a generous understatement—I used to have high hopes that weed could give me that elusive experience known as chilling out. But each of the five times that I tried it in high school and college, it did nothing. Then, when I was 24, a friend and I took a walk through San Francisco and saw a huge cloud of smoke rising from Golden Gate Park. That’s when we realized we’d arrived at around 4:20 on 4/20. Eager to take advantage of the coincidence, I bought a weed-laced Rice Krispies Treat from a guy in the park and downed a third of it. What followed was one of the most stressful afternoons of my life.

As my brain seemed to become progressively slower and more ineffective over the course of the next hour, I worried I wouldn’t remember how to get home. What if I walked in front of a car and died? Then, I got a text from a colleague who needed me to share a Google doc with her. I panicked as I realized that simple task eluded me. I spent ten minutes trying to figure it out, convinced she’d somehow know why I was taking so long and think less of my adulting abilities.

Reeling from that ordeal, I had my friend walk me home. Two ice cream cones later, I lay down in my bed, where I realized my eyes rolled back when I closed them. I opened them in panic, convinced they’d get stuck in the back of my head. Thankfully, after several minutes of debating whether it was safe to close my eyes, the drug’s sedative effects seemed to override the anxiety and paranoia, and I fell asleep. Needless to say, I gave away the other two-thirds of that Rice Krispies Treat.

It seemed unfair that the substance many swore by for anxiety reduction had only made me more anxious. But it turns out my reaction wasn’t that unusual. “[Weed] made me feel overly aware of everything that was going on around me and paranoid that anyone in the same room was watching and judging me,” says Kim, a 26-year-old teacher in New Orleans who declined to share her last name for her career’s sake. “I would eventually just freeze wherever I was so that I wouldn’t do anything ‘wrong’ but still be anxiously spiraling inside my head.”

Weed similarly has given Alaina Leary, a 24-year-old editor in Boston, a flood of worries like: “Does my girlfriend actually love me? Is what I just said really stupid and are my friends going to abandon me now? What if we split up while walking and I get lost forever?”

These reactions aren’t typical, but they’re not uncommon either, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. They’re especially common for people who are new to weed and unfamiliar with the feeling of being high. “The disorientation can be very anxiety provoking,” he explains, as can the loss of control that comes with compromised mental capacities.

However, there’s another reason why people might feel anxious while stoned, even long after their first time. THC binds to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, releasing the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, a neurotransmitter that stops neurons from firing, Giordano explains. Increased GABA and serotonin activity inhibits norepinephrine—a neurotransmitter involved in alertness and anxiety—which calms most people down.

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But for some people, reduced norepinephrine has a rebound effect, stimulating activity in the brainstem’s locus ceruleus and limbic forebrain, which are involved in arousal and excitation, Giordano says. This activity in turn sends the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, leading to a rise in heart rate and release of cortisol, which we tend to perceive as anxiety.

Paranoia is a separate but often co-occurring side effect of weed, typically caused by an increase in dopamine primarily in the limbic forebrain, Giordano says. This change in dopamine activity can make some people feel anxious and think others are out to get them or judging them.

It’s a cruel irony that the very people who could benefit from weed’s relaxing effects are often the ones who don’t feel them. While some neurotic or hypervigilant people get relief while they’re stoned, others’ fears are exacerbated. “What pot tends to do is augment aspects of one’s personality,” Giordano tells me. “If you tend to be a jovial person, if you’re smoking weed, those personality traits tend to be disinhibited and you become more of that. Individuals who have anxious traits or those with paranoid traits might need a bit of caution.”

People’s reactions to weed tend to be fairly consistent, so if it’s made you anxious once, it might be first-time anxiety, but anything more than that probably means that’s just how your brain responds to the drug, Giordano says. People who have paranoid or anxious reactions to weed should be especially careful about edibles, since those highs tend to last longer. So, maybe stay away from the special Rice Krispies Treats.

If someone around you is having an unpleasant experience on weed, Giordano suggests comforting them and letting them know they’re in a supportive environment. Make sure not to joke about it because that could add to their social anxiety. He adds that if you find yourself in the middle of weed-induced anxiety, getting fresh air and moving around might help you metabolize the drug. Some also find that relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation help.

Most importantly, let someone know you’re having a hard time, even if it feels like you’re killing the mood because everyone else is blissed out. People who get anxious when they’re stoned “should be very forthright about what they’re experiencing, particularly if it’s not pleasant,” Giordano says. “You don’t want to suffer through this by yourself. It can be a scary experience.”

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It’s a cruel irony that the very people who could benefit from weed’s relaxing effects are often the ones who don’t feel them.

Chill or Anxious AF? How Weed Affects Anxiety

There are plenty of people out there who claim cannabis is the key to quieting anxiety and achieving a state of blissed-out relaxation. Yeah, you know who you are.

But there’s probably just as many people who claim that weed sends them spiraling into panic, paranoia, and anxious thoughts — making their anxiety about a million times worse.

Personally, I’ve experienced both. Sometimes, a few hits are all it takes for my mind to stop racing, for my shoulders to relax, and for me to (finally!) chill the eff out.

Other times, those same few hits can send me into a full-blown panic, hyperventilating on the floor of the bathroom, convinced I’m going to be high and trapped in the hot, anxious mess that is my brain from now until eternity.

So, what’s the deal? Why is weed a virtual miracle cure for some people’s anxiety and completely anxiety-inducing for others?

And, more importantly, how can you make sure your experience with cannabis has you feeling less anxious and totally relaxed — instead of on the verge of panic?

The first thing to understand about cannabis and anxiety is that not all weed is created equal.

There’s hundreds of compounds (known as cannabinoids) produced by the cannabis plant, but when it comes to anxiety, there’s two you need to know about: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is what most people think of when they think of cannabis. It’s the compound responsible for getting you “high.”

CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychotropic — meaning it’s not going to produce the same “oh man, I’m so stoned” feeling you get from THC.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cannabis — it’s not like CBD is better than THC or vice versa.

But understanding the differences between the two — and how it relates to your particular brand of anxiety — can help make your experience with cannabis more anxiety-relieving and less anxiety-inducing.

“There are a lot of different types of anxiety which will definitely influence how people respond to different forms of treatment or therapeutic intervention with something like cannabis.

“Anxiety can be anticipatory or it could be generalized or it can be connected to depression or it could be more of a panic disorder,” says Emma Chasen, cannabis educator and founder of Eminent Consulting Firm. “And so all of those different types will respond differently to cannabis.”

If your anxiety goes hand in hand with an overall “blah” feeling, THC can be just what you need to lift your spirits. “For people who have anxiety connected to depression [or] general dysphoria, THC can actually be really helpful because it is euphoric,” says Chasen.

But THC — especially in high doses — can cause a cascade of side effects, like elevated heart rate or racing thoughts. This can actually exacerbate certain kinds of anxiety. And that’s where CBD comes in.

“CBD is non-psychotropic, so it’s not going to give you any of those negative side effects,” says Chasen.

“It may help to alleviate some more anticipatory anxiety, some more generalized social anxiety and may even help with panic disorders because it does influence and interact with your serotonin system.”

So, in a nutshell, too much THC can definitely create a more anxiety-inducing smoke sesh, while CBD can help you chill out, but won’t get you stoned.

Luckily, you can have your cake and eat it too — according to Chasen, a mix of THC and CBD may be the best approach to using cannabis to feel less anxious and more relaxed (and get a nice buzz in the process).

“I would definitely look for something with a mixed ratio of cannabinoids,” says Chasen. “A 1:1 or a 2:1 ratio of THC to CBD will typically be very helpful at stimulating euphoria and decreasing anxiety — especially if you take it very slow and low [with your] dosage.”

Finding the right balance of CBD and THC is key to keeping your anxiety in check when using cannabis. But if you want to take weed’s anxiety-fighting benefits to the next level, there’s something else you want to be mindful of — and that’s terpenes.

Terpenes are the fragrant oils that give each cannabis plant its distinct aroma. And just like cannabinoids, different terpenes produce different effects — including effects that can lower anxiety.

Chasen says there are terpenes that have “documented anti-anxiety properties.”

According to Chasen, there are three terpenes you should be on the lookout for if you want to use cannabis to treat your anxiety — limonene, linalool, and beta-caryophyllene.

If your anxiety has you feeling down or depressed, look for limonene, which can create euphoria and put a little anxiety-busting pep in your step.

“Limonene [is] the terpene found in the rind of citrus fruit [and] it does interact with your serotonin and dopamine receptors and helps to stimulate euphoria, so that is a great one to help reduce anxiety,” says Chasen.

If you’re more in the market for a major de-stressor that will help you chill out and log a solid night of shut-eye, try linalool, a compound of lavender that has a more sedative, relaxing effect.

“We know that lavender is a good de-stressor, and linalool is a compound of lavender — so it does the same type of thing in cannabis,” says Chasen.

And if you’re looking for something in between the euphoria of limonene and the chill sleepiness of linalool, try beta-caryophyllene.

“Beta-caryophyllene, which is found in black pepper and cinnamon, also has some really wonderful anti-anxiety properties,” says Chasen.

“If limonene is the more uplifting one and linalool is the more sedating one, then beta-caryophyllene is kind of right in the middle. It’s more analogous to like a glass of red wine at the end of a long day [to help you unwind.]”

Getting the right blend of THC, CBD, and anxiety-busting terpenes is key to having a positive experience with cannabis. But there’s a few other things you’ll want to keep in mind to make sure your next foray into the world of weed is chill, relaxed, and anxiety-free:

  • Control your consumption. There’s lots of different ways to consume cannabis (tinctures and gummies and flower, oh my!). But if you want to have the most control of your experience, try edibles. “With edibles, you can really take a very precise dose,” says Chasen. “With smoking, it’s a lot harder to measure your dose.”
  • Take it low and slow. If you’re using THC, the best way to keep anxiety at bay is to start with a low dose and then slowly add more THC until you find the dose that gives you the high you’re looking for — without the side dish of anxiety. If you’re using edibles, Chasen recommends starting with 2.5 milligrams. “Monitor how it makes you feel and don’t consume any more for that entire [episode],” says Chasen. If you feel like you need more, increase your dosage by 1 milligram per consumption period until you find your sweet spot.
  • Counteract THC-induced anxiety with CBD. If you find yourself feeling overly anxious from THC, you can counteract those anxious feelings with a healthy dose of CBD. “Smoking or vaping CBD can provide immediate relief from THC-induced anxiety,” Chasen explains. Depending on your dose of THC, you may need to consume a decent amount of CBD to get rid of the anxiety — but it will definitely help you feel better (and fast).

Why is cannabis a miracle cure for some people’s anxiety — and totally anxiety-inducing for others? A cannabis educator shares everything you need to know, plus tips for how to make sure your next experience with weed leaves you chill to the max and not on the verge of panic.