There is a lot of confusing talk on the relationship between marijuana and anxiety. On one hand, some people swear by weed’s ability to calm the wind in their mind.
On the contrary, others claim that marijuana makes their anxiety a million times worse thereby requiring them to do THC detox.
So, let’s get the facts straight:
How does cannabis affect anxiety?
Does it treat or make it worse?
What’s the recommendable way of using marijuana for anxiety?
Understanding the Paradoxical Link between Marijuana and Anxiety
To better understand how these 2 interact, we need to define what anxiety is and how marijuana interferes with the chemistry in the brain.
This refers to a mental health disorder that causes increased alertness, excessive worry, unwanted thoughts, panic attacks, and physical signs such as an elevated heart rate.
Anxiety is normal and the brain will naturally resort to it when an individual faces potentially harmful threats.
Anxiety acts as an alarm and triggers off the fight-or-flight response that is responsible for preparing an individual to either flee or physically confront a potential threat.
How marijuana works in the brain
The human brain consists of a network of neurons and neural circuits that make up the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Endocannabinoids are molecules that relay chemical messages by attaching to the cannabinoid receptors (CB1) of target neurons.
If you are wondering why these molecules are called ‘cannabinoids’, then that’s because they have a structure pretty much similar to that of marijuana cannabinoids except they are naturally made in the body.
When you consume marijuana, the chemical compounds- mainly THC and CBD- are absorbed into the bloodstream where they zip all around the body and eventually get in the brain.
Since marijuana’s cannabinoids resemble those produced by the body and they work in a similar manner, your brain tends to recognize them.
They are powerful, though, so they overwhelm the natural cannabinoids and bind to the CB1 receptors.
THC- which has the principal psychoactive effects- alters normal functions in the brain thereby causing what we recognize as a ‘HIGH.’
How does marijuana affect anxiety?
Now, besides causing the HIGH effect, THC binds to cannabinoid receptors leading to the release of;
- Dopamine– involved in cognitive functions such as focus and memory
- Serotonin– a neurotransmitter with several functions including regulating mood and social behavior
- GABA– a neurotransmitter that reduces the activity of neurons in the brain
Increased activity of serotonin and GABA inhibits the production of norepinephrine- a hormone and neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety and alertness.
The effects of low levels of norepinephrine vary between individuals. For some, this inhibition tends to calm them down- this is the group that firmly believes that weed helps in reducing anxiety.
But for others, low levels of norepinephrine trigger arousal and excitation by increasing the activity in the locus ceruleus and limbic forebrain.
Resultantly, this leads to hyperactivity in the sympathetic nervous system thereby leading to increased heart rate and an increased release of stress hormones, cortisol.
This spirals them into anxious thoughts, panic attacks, and paranoia.
There are several other reasons why weed affects anxiety differently among users;
The ratio of THC and CBD in the weed
It’s important to understand that not all marijuana is created equal. The major difference is manifested in the levels of THC and CBD in each strain.
Recreational weed tends to have more THC- the active ingredient that causes the ‘’I’m so stoned, man’’ feeling.
High levels of THC have been linked to a cascade of unpleasant feelings including racing thoughts and increased heart rate- what we perceive as anxiety.
CBD, on the other hand, won’t get you high. But it’s non-psychoactive. So, it won’t cause the side effects that THC causes.
In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology shows that CBD tends to buffer the weed user against the acute side effects of THC.
This technically means that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too!
If a particular type of weed strain has been causing or worsening your anxiety, you might want to enquire about the ratio of cannabinoids in the weed from your supplier/dispensary.
Ideally, if you want to retain the HIGH while avoiding the side effects, consider something with a balanced ratio of THC and CBD.
On the other hand, if you want to address anxiety with weed, consider a strain that is rich in CBD.
A unique experience for everyone
While THC has a reportedly high potential of causing anxiety and panic attacks, it’s important to note that weed affects people differently. The experience also tends to be different each time.
Having said that, it is basically hard to predict how weed will make you feel if you are planning to take it for the first time. So, there’s only one way to find out; giving it a trial.
We’ve heard of so many first-timers who report that they didn’t feel a thing.
One possible explanation for this is that most first-time smokers tend to project too many expectations from the stories they have heard from other smokers.
Thus, the fact that they don’t know what to expect exactly makes it easy for them to miss what is happening.
This ‘nothing happened’ of first-time weed smokers has also been theorized that the cannabinoid receptors in their brain need some time before they can be stimulated by THC and CBD.
On the other hand, some first-timers swear never to do weed again after their very first hit gives them what feels like a heart attack.
This is probably because they don’t know what to experience.
Therefore, the experience manifests itself in a much more powerful and overwhelming manner.
This might cause what most people would interpret as anxiety thereby leading them to abandon weed completely.
Does marijuana help with anxiety?
The increased legalization of recreational and medical marijuana has brought with it an increased number of people who rely on pot to manage their overwhelming anxiety.
The main reason why most people believe that weed works this way is because of its calming effects.
All the studies that have been carried out around this topic seem to have contradicting information; some claim that weed lowers anxiety while others suggest that it heightens these feelings.
Opposing the claims that marijuana (with high levels of THC) does help, several experts argue that individuals who rely on pot to ease anxiety only focus on the short term benefits.
The researchers in the study above say that there is no enough evidence to prove that marijuana is effective in relieving anxiety more so as a long term strategy.
These claims get some sort of support from another study that aimed at identifying the effects of cannabis on mood and anxiety after prolonged use.
This study involved 11,959 subjects who were undergoing psychiatric treatment for various conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and major depression.
Cannabis use among the participants ranged from single-use in the previous month to marijuana use disorder.
The researchers found out that the conditions worsened for the patients who smoked more weed than less-frequent users and non-smokers.
Explaining the results, the researchers argue that when pot is used to manage symptoms of mood and anxiety, it tends to be a ‘Band-Aid’ strategy; that is, it may offer short term relief from acute symptoms, but it tends to worsen the outcomes in the long run.
What about CBD oil- does it help with anxiety?
CBD (cannabidiol) is the second most famous extract of the cannabis plant after THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Cannabidiol oil is edible. It can be used for cooking, added directly to food, or even taken in form of medication by consuming several drops of it.
While there are a lot of studies done on the effectiveness of marijuana (as a whole) in the treatment, the research on the potential benefits of CBD oil only is scanty. However, the preliminary results are promising.
Several clinical results show that this oil is effective in dealing with a wide range of conditions including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
One study published in SAGE Journals showed that CBD could help in treating individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD).
SAD is one of the most common types of anxiety that it causes fear when interacting with other people socially.
When the researchers scanned the brain following the consumption of cannabidiol, they detected a change in the flow of blood mainly in the regions that are associated with anxiety.
Another 2011 study involved SAD patients with significantly high levels of anxiety, cognitive impairment, discomfort, and alert.
When the patients were treated with a single dose of CBD oil, they exhibited significantly reduced fear when speaking in public- the major symptom of social anxiety disorder.
In yet another recent analysis of previous studies on the same issue, the researchers concluded that cannabidiol oil can be effective in the treatment of different forms of anxiety including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder.
How to Prevent Weed-induced Anxiety
Whether you are a starter or another Snoop Dogg, everyone has his/her ups and downs with pot. There are times when you’ll just get high and chill- pretty much every smoker’s wish.
But at other times, weed from the same dealer or medical marijuana dispensary will leave you freaking out and creating bizarre scenarios that could seem life-threatening at worse.
Here are tips to help you get an actual high while preventing anxiety
Be in a familiar, secure, and comfortable environment
If weed is causing you anxiety, there are high chances that it’s something to do with the environment that you smoke in.
Research shows that the environment has a significant contribution to the way a drug affects someone.
For most people, pot tends to offer much better results, especially in social settings. However, getting too stoned among strangers or people you don’t trust could heighten your suspicion and fears.
If you are trying to hit a joint fast before a colleague, friend, or parent gets home, the chances are that you’ll experience a feeling of being busted.
So, besides making sure that you are in a familiar and secure environment, ensure that you are comfortable too.
Go easy on your dose
Weed has a biphasic response meaning that it can produce completely different effects depending on the dose.
What cannabis can relieve at low dosage can also be amplified if it is taken in high doses.
While more seems better, experts advise starting slow and going slow.
You could consider waiting for at least 10 minutes before the next hit or about 2 hours before eating the next cookie.
Have CBD capsules within reach
One surprising finding of CBD is its ability to neutralize THC-induced anxiety.
CBD can be taken in form of vape or capsule and it’s non-psychotropic meaning that it won’t get you high.
Citicoline supplement also helps in lowering this anxiety. Citicoline is a chemical that occurs naturally in the brain.
It is also available as a supplement and can be taken by mouth or as a shot.
This supplement is mainly used for head trauma, stroke, age-related memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma among other illnesses.
While there is insufficient evidence on its interaction with THC, there are claims that it does help in counteracting its negative effects including regulating mood and anxiety.
What to do in case of marijuana-induced anxiety
Most weed users have a time when they experienced a weird high accompanied by episodes of paranoia.
It’s quite paradoxical that this feeling mostly hits people who could benefit from the drug.
Whenever you are in such a situation, just understand your mind is playing tricks on you and the situation isn’t as life-threatening as it seems.
So, resist the urge to dial 911.
In most instances, the experience doesn’t last long.
It will be over in 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on how you ingested the cannabis; the effects take longer if you ate it.
It might also be important to open up to a companion if you feel that the feeling is overwhelming.
Once the feeling has subsided, take some time to analyze what might have caused it;
- How was the environment?
- Who were you with?
- Could it be the strain had a high level of THC?
- What was your state of mind at that time?