Marijuana-Induced Anxiety Is Weed Culture’s Bigfoot
You might not remember your first time smoking weed. But you’ll remember the first time smoking weed made you freak the fuck out.
I was at a friend’s house five years ago, curled into a ball after three hits of unequivocally good weed. My brain loomed in and out of consciousness. I was scared. Every few seconds, the room would turn black. I could feel my heart about to burst, and eventually, I succumbed to a comatose-like sleep. It wasn’t like other times, and it sucked.
Marijuana-induced anxiety is weed culture’s Bigfoot—an urban legend that’s perpetuated by hearsay, rather than fact. Everyone knows someone whose friend’s cousin had a bad trip. (“But like, weed is really good for anxiety, right?”). As a result, the truth of the matter is muddled, and discussing reefer madness can actually make you feel insane.
“I puked some indeterminate number of times. Then I basically just lay down on the tile floor. Some part of me was aware, the whole time, that I was just way too high, and it would eventually pass,” one person told me about their experience. “I woke up on the bathroom floor in the morning. I felt extremely bad.”
“My boyfriend and I had tickets to a Kate Nash concert and smoked a joint before heading out,” said another. “I remember feeling kind of floaty on the cab ride over—almost like I wasn’t fully in my body…Then, during the opener, the room started to go dizzy and I suddenly couldn’t see or hear anything. The next thing I remember is waking up on the floor several minutes later, a crowd of people hovering around me, feeling like I’d died.”
“I wasn’t right for the next three days,” one person who developed a later anxiety disorder told me. “My friends still talk about this event and we laugh, but that experience fucked me up and I never smoked weed again. And never will.”
I spoke to dozens of people whose symptoms were mostly the same: anxiety, distorted vision or hearing, dizziness, and blacking out. These aren’t the nice effects of weed, mind you. And as someone with an anxiety disorder, I can tell you they feel a lot like a panic attack.
Thanks in part to stringent marijuana laws, it’s been difficult for researchers to gather data that isn’t only self-reported.
But it’s not clear whether weed jumpstarts anxiety disorders, and the association is tenuous. When existing studies on this topic were reevaluated, and other anxiety stressors were controlled for, an almost insignificant amount of people showed a link between marijuana use and anxiety development. Research based on longitudinal data from a National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which included interviews with 34,653 participants, also found negligible evidence that weed can catalyze anxiety.
Still, thanks in part to stringent marijuana laws, it’s been difficult for researchers to gather data that isn’t only self-reported. Things like cannabis strain, for instance, which can determine the type of high that someone gets, are impossible to standardize in large studies.
“It’s not just whether or not a person has a genetic risk factor. It’s really looking at the expression of those genes, and that’s brought on by environmental factors that change the way genes are expressed,” April Thames, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, told me.
“It’s conceivable that the use of these substances could impact one’s trajectory to develop anxiety, but need there needs to be more research.”
For people who already have anxiety disorders, it’s a little different. Stress and anxiety are brother and sister—controlling one can help the other. A prominent theory suggests that naturally occurring cannabinoids in our brains can be produced in response to stress hormones. These molecules, in turn, may disrupt the amygdala, a region near the base of our brain that contributes to anxious feelings when overstimulated, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. It should be noted, however, that this was an animal study, which affects its ability to reliably predict these same results in humans.
Another study, published one year earlier in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, also linked cannabinoids, specifically anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), to stress responses. It stated that certain cannabinoid receptors interact with these molecules to regulate stress. Based on this research, it’s been theorized that when tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—the psychoactive compound in weed that gets you high—binds with specific brain receptors, feelings of anxiety can either be increased or decreased. And for some people, smoking weed with higher levels of THC can induce symptoms common with anxiety.
“If someone has a history of anxiety, panic episodes, or even depression, cannabis can exacerbate those effects, according to some literature,” Thames added. “There’s some thought that cannabis has a connection [with making these receptors more sensitive], bringing on an anxiety-like state.”
Different strains of weed can also play a role. Thoughtful sellers often prescribe indica, rather than sativa, to anxiety-prone people. There are shaky genetic differences between modern Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, but very broadly, certain types of indica can possess higher cannabidiol (CBD) levels. CBD is a cannabinoid like THC, but is non-psychoactive, resulting in a gentler high. (As with all homeopathic medicine, your method may vary.)
If one thing’s for certain, it’s that weed is still drastically under-researched, and we won’t know if and when weed will give us a panic attack until we surpass regulatory hurdles and embrace the science. Hopefully, as marijuana laws become less draconian, psychologists will have more freedom to study its effects—positive and negative.
Until then, don’t feel down if weed makes you feel bad. Experiment with different strains, and at the end of the day, remember that it’s supposed to make you feel good.
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Ever get the fear when you smoke pot? Scientists are still trying to work out why.
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.