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Panic Attacks: When Weed’s the Opposite of Relaxing

People typically associate marijuana with feeling relaxed, “chilled-out,” or outright euphoric. But for some unlucky individuals, weed can have an intensely unpleasant opposite effect: panic attacks. Here’s what we know so far about cannabis panic attacks, and a few tips on how to get past them.

Can weed cause panic attacks?

Current research suggests that, yes, weed can cause panic attacks. Certain chemical compounds found in weed (cannabinoids) affect how our brains process hormones such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Most of the time, the way cannabinoids interact with these hormones relieves stress and anxiety, and promotes a sense of well-being. However, these altered hormone levels sometimes have an unintended effect on the parts of the brain that govern the sympathetic nervous system. This can result in physical responses (such as racing heart and shortness of breath) that the brain then interprets as anxiety. If your “fight-or-flight” response kicks in, it can lead to a panic attack.

Research on this subject is still quite limited, but a link between cannabis dependence and the development of panic disorder (an anxiety disorder characterized by panic attacks occurring in non-threatening situations) has been suggested. If you have ever used cannabis in your lifetime, the higher your odds appear to be of experiencing panic attacks (even when not under the influence) as well as of developing panic disorder.

Q: Can weed cause panic attacks?
A: Yes, weed can cause panic attacks. This appears to happen most frequently in people who are already predisposed to anxiety disorders, are new to cannabis, are feeling emotionally low or anxious, and/or are in an uncomfortable environment.

Why do you get weed panic attacks?

People who are already prone to anxiety or panic attacks may be more likely to experience them when using marijuana. Paradoxically, many people with anxiety disorders frequently use weed to “self-medicate” their symptoms. One survey of California medical marijuana users showed that 16.9% of respondents used weed specifically for relief of panic attacks.

There are a few environmental factors that can up your risk of experiencing a panic attack while using cannabis:

  • Being in an anxious or generally negative headspace.
  • Using weed in an unfamiliar environment, or among strangers.
  • Taking a dose containing more THC than you are accustomed to.
  • Being new to using cannabis.
  • Using weed alongside alcohol or other mind-altering substances.
  • Having concerns about using marijuana among people who disapprove of it, or in a location where it is not legal to do so.

People who are already prone to anxiety or panic attacks may be more likely to experience them when using marijuana.

Which cannabinoids cause the panic attack?

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the primary culprit in panic attacks. THC is the cannabinoid that gets people “high” when they use weed. High-THC strains of marijuana do carry a higher risk of panic attacks. Edible cannabis is more likely than smoked cannabis to cause these intense reactions. When THC is consumed, it is metabolized by the liver, resulting in high concentrations of a psychoactive THC by-product (11-hydroxy-THC) releasing into the bloodstream. Edible cannabis also stays in your system longer, which could extend the time it takes to come down from a panic attack caused by THC.

Fortunately, another cannabinoid, CBD (cannabidiol), can often counteract the adverse effects of THC. You may be able to reduce the odds of a panic attack by taking extra CBD oil before using weed, choosing only to use high-CBD marijuana strains, or abstaining from any cannabis products that contain even small amounts of THC. Hemp-based CBD oil does not contain any THC and could be a good alternative, depending on your needs and reasons for using marijuana.

Q: Does THC cause marijuana panic attacks?
A: THC is the component of weed believed to be responsible for causing cannabis-induced panic attacks. Taking a dose of cannabis with higher THC than you are used to appears to up the risk of panic attacks.

Q: Does CBD cause weed panic attacks?
A: CBD does not appear to cause panic attacks. CBD has actually been shown to reduce anxiety and it may be able to counteract the effects of THC well enough to help calm or prevent panic attacks.

Symptoms of a weed panic attack

Panic attacks can vary from person to person, and from experience to experience. A panic attack may include many of the following symptoms, or just one or two.

  • Trouble breathing. This is typically due to hyperventilating – which the person may not even realize they are doing.
  • Chest pain
  • Racing heart (especially when coupled with chest pain, people often fear that this symptom indicates a heart attack)
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Pounding headache
  • Tingling or numbness in limbs and/or face
  • Physical weakness
  • Tunnel vision
  • Feeling off-balance and out of control
  • Feeling stuck in place and unable to move
  • A strong sense of anxiety, fear, paranoia, dread, or terror
  • Feeling concerned that you are dying or losing your sanity
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea can develop as a secondary symptom, prompted by the emotional duress experienced during the panic attack.

Q: What are the symptoms of marijuana panic attack?
A: Panic attack symptoms vary from person to person, but common side effects include a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, chills, dizziness, intense feelings of anxiety, paranoia, or terror. Stomach problems such as nausea, pain, and vomiting often develop as a result of anxiety and fear.

How does it feel to have a marijuana panic attack?

While 100 different people may describe 100 different experiences, there are a few thoughts and sensations that are frequent offenders in weed panic attacks. Intensified feelings of social anxiety are very common – from general concerns like “what if my friends/partner/co-workers/pets secretly hate me?” to concerns directly related to your current experience, like “Does everyone in the room think I’m weak for being unable to handle my weed?”

You also might feel intense paranoia that law enforcement officers or other authority figures will somehow discover that you are high on cannabis – even if you are totally alone in your own apartment. It’s very common to begin wondering if you have overdosed, or if your weed has somehow been laced with poison. You may interpret the physical symptoms of the panic attack as evidence that you are life-threateningly ill. Any stimuli may feel overwhelming – noise, lights, the temperature of the room, or the presence of other people. You may feel “stuck” in place, as though something as simple as getting up and walking across the room is an insurmountable feat.

Intensified feelings of social anxiety are very common

How can you prevent a weed panic attack?

There is no foolproof way to prevent a panic attack from occurring – other than completely avoiding all cannabis containing THC (including cannabis-derived CBD products). If you do choose to use marijuana, the following tips can help to reduce the odds of having a panic attack.

  • Keep your body well-nourished and hydrated. A body in better condition will be better able to process and metabolize cannabis.
  • Ensure that you are comfortable in your environment and the people in it. Being in a new place or around new people, people you don’t trust, or people you are worried about judgment from (like conservative family members or even law enforcement officers) can enhance anxiety.
  • Be aware of your own headspace. If you are feeling anxious or low, it might be wise to abstain.
  • Make a plan beforehand. Have a place in mind that you can retreat to if you need to, whether it’s the backyard or a cozy bedroom. Consider having a comforting film, TV show, or music in mind in case you need a distraction.
  • Use the buddy system. Have a trusted friend with you – or only a phone call away – in case you need someone to lean on during a panic attack.
  • Take some extra CBD oil prior to using cannabis. Or consider subbing out your weed for hemp-derived CBD products, if you are looking for relaxation or relief from pain or insomnia and don’t care about getting high.
  • Go slowly – especially with edibles! You can always take more later on. But once you’ve taken too much cannabis, you are stuck on that high until the THC works its way out of your system.

Q: How can you prevent a cannabis panic attack?
A: The only way to guarantee you will not experience a cannabis panic attack is abstinence from all products containing THC. But you may be able to tip the odds in your favor by taking extra CBD oil prior to using marijuana, and ensuring you are hydrated, well-nourished, in a good headspace, and in a comfortable environment.

How to reduce the effects of a marijuana panic attack?

What can you do if you find yourself in the midst of a weed panic attack? The good news is, despite how horrible it feels when it is happening, a panic attack can’t kill you, and it won’t last forever. Here are some tips to help you get through a cannabis panic attack as quickly and smoothly as possible. Not all of these tips will work for each person each time, but you might find yourself surprised by what ends up helping most.

  • If you are feeling woozy, drink something sugary to raise your blood sugar. A carb-heavy snack may also help, but you’ll probably prefer something “dry,” like cake or crackers if you are also experiencing nausea or vomiting.
  • Excuse yourself. A change of scenery can make a big difference – go outside, or to a quiet room, or out to your car (just don’t try to drive it!).
  • Ask for help. Ask a friend to help you get water or a snack, or ask them to distract you, to go for a walk with you, or to talk you through the anxiety.
  • Do some deep breathing and ground yourself into the present moment. Find something outside of yourself to focus your attention on – the sensation of touching a soft blanket or holding your hand under running water, for example.
  • Closing your eyes, listening to music, or watching TV might help, but also could be too overwhelming, especially at the peak of the panic attack.
  • As you begin to come down from the panic attack, distract yourself with an activity if you can (this may be a good time to try the music or TV). Conversation with a trusted person may also be a welcome and effective distraction.

Panic attack can’t kill you, and it won’t last forever.

What not to do if you have a weed panic attack

If you find yourself in the throes of a marijuana panic attack, the last thing you want to do is make it worse. Here are a few things that are highly unlikely to help you feel better and will probably make you feel worse:

  • Don’t call 911 (unless you have a true emergency on your hands, of course). A weed-induced panic attack, intensely unpleasant as it may be, is not a true emergency. You are not going to die from a marijuana overdose. You are not going to die from having a panic attack. Your heart racing, shortness of breath, chills, and vomiting are symptoms of the panic attack and they will subside. Having the paramedics come will likely be more stressful and stimulating (and potentially embarrassing) than waiting it out.
  • Don’t stay put if you are uncomfortable. Get out of the room, go back inside, go sit in your car, remove yourself from conversation or company that is making you feel uneasy. A change of scenery and energy can help you calm down faster.
  • Don’t try to focus on television or music if it feels overwhelming. These things can be great distractors when you are coming down. But if they don’t feel good, try something else instead.
  • Don’t take Xanax or other benzodiazepine prescription anxiety drugs. CBD blocks some of the enzymes that help to break down drugs like Xanax. This can result in larger amounts of Xanax in the bloodstream and amplify the drug’s side effects.

An unfortunate risk factor

It is unfortunate that some of the people who might most benefit from the relaxing effects of weed could be at higher risk of having cannabis-induced panic attacks. As more research is done on this subject, more definitive solutions may be found. In the meantime, the more knowledge you can arm yourself with about marijuana panic attacks, how to get through them, and how to lower your chances of having one, the better.

Panic attacks are an unpleasant potential side effect of cannabis use. Here’s what really happens during a cannabis panic attack.

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.