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.
Marijuana anxiety? Here’s what to do if you have a panic attack while high
While many find weed a relaxing drug, marijuanaВ alsoВ has a direct connectionВ to panic attacks. Even aВ habitual smoker who seems the very definition of “chill” has likely had the experienceВ of being way too high, man. В
In the moment, that can be overwhelming. But it’sВ not the end of the world. Here’s what you need to know aboutВ theВ scary, stressfulВ and sometimes overwhelming problemВ of weed-induced panic.
Can weed causeВ panic attacks?
“It can,” said Ryan Vandrey, whoВ studiesВ the behavioral pharmacology of cannabis useВ atВ Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,В in a phone interview. “It happens from direct effects of the drug inВ the brain and/or direct effects of the drug on body.”В
“Cannabis can modulate neurotransmitters in parts of the brain that control anxiety and elevateВ yourВ heart rate,” which can in turn create a sense of escalating panic, he explained.
Recognizing the panic attack for what it is
AВ wide variety of physiological effectsВ fall under the umbrella term “panic attack,” though Vandrey cautioned that they’re specific to each person, andВ none can be considered “typical.”
ThereВ “hasnвЂ™t been a lot of research focused exclusively” on the signs ofВ weed-related panic, Vandrey said. “The important thing to note is that itвЂ™s dose-related. You see greater exacerbation of heart rate at higher doses. And it’s more likely to occur in individuals who already deal with anxiety issues or have a predisposition to or familyВ history ofВ them.”
That said, people whoВ experienceВ panic attacks have reportedВ symptoms including, but by no means restricted to:
вЂўВ Racing heartbeat
вЂўВ Tunnel vision
вЂў Sweat or chills
вЂў Chest pains
вЂў Tingling or numbness in the extremitiesВ
вЂў WeaknessВ and dizziness
вЂўВ Trouble breathing
These areВ someВ potential results of aВ “flight-or-fight” response, which is triggered by the brain’s hypothalamus when you instinctuallyВ detect a threat вЂ” either real or imagined. Your wholeВ body is placed on high alert, and fear of impending death or doom is palpable.В
What to do when you know you’re panicking
The key thing to rememberВ is that a panic attack can’t hurt you. Contrary to what some of the above symptoms may suggest, you’re likelyВ not suffering aВ heart attack or obstructed airway.
There’s also zeroВ chance you’veВ “overdosed”В on weed. Remind yourself that this condition is not lasting but temporary. In due course, it will all be over.В
The experienceВ “usually doesn’tВ lastВ that long,” Vandrey said,В perhaps “half hour or an hour, dependingВ on how the cannabisВ was ingested вЂ”В shorter if inhaled, longer if eaten.”В В
“It all depends on the individual,” he said.В “None of it is applicable to everybody.” В
Take stock of your situation and surroundings
For many, weed-based anxiety involves a hefty dose of paranoia about other people. Because marijuana is a drug enjoyed in social settings, getting too stoned can lead to suspicions that your own friends resent you, or that you’re somehow “ruining” their good time.
“Research has shown that individual responses to a given drug can absolutely be influenced by the situation in which it occurs,” Vandrey said. “If somebody takes a drug that produces anxiety in uncomfortable surroundings, they may heighten their anxiety.В Cannabis is a perfect example.”
If environmental factors are contributing to your fear or stress, removing yourself from that context can help.
Ask for help
Resist the idea that anyone hates you for obscure reasons of your own invention. The truth is that anyoneВ not in the throes ofВ panicВ can assure you that your symptoms are exaggerated, impermanentВ and not life-threatening, which is a huge advantage when your mind is playing tricks on you.
A companion is also handy to haveВ when it comes to limiting environmental stressors, and canВ address any simple and immediate needs.
“ThereвЂ™s no one way to treat this,” Vandrey said. “When it does happen in our lab we respond to the needs of the individual. We encourage people to get comfortable and provide them with whatever they need вЂ” whetherВ that’sВ food, or water, or sometimes just to close their eyes, lie down and relax.”
Give yourself a break
As a panic attack releases its grip, you mayВ feel a little sheepish or outright embarrassed about what you did or saidВ whenВ it took hold. “Why did I freak out like that?” you’ll ask yourself.В
Despite popular conceptions of such episodes, Vandrey said they’re “notВ common at all.”В They’reВ especially unusualВ for “frequent, experienced” users:В “It rarely happens, and usually only after very high doses.”В
And while limiting your intake or indulging in a more comfortable environmentВ may prevent a repeat occurrence in the future, the best way to avoid a weed-related panic attack “is is to not use cannabis at all.”В
In other words, this is a risk everyone runs with weed вЂ” but, Vandrey said, a “subset of people” are particularly vulnerable to it. So while someВ stoners can laugh about the times they tipped over the edge into full-blown paranoia and horror,В treating it likeВ a rite of passage, others will find that they’re better off not gambling with their neurochemistry this way.В В
In any case, rest assured that a weed-induced panic attack is not going on your permanent record, and will soon be forgotten by whoever happened to witness it. The only judgment you face is your own.
Figure out what went wrong
As we’ve discussed, “situational” factors are important determinants in matters of substance abuse and addiction, and anyone fond ofВ weed will tell you that theВ effectsВ are similarly contingent on your surroundings: Where were you? Who were you with?В
And, maybe above all:В What was your frame ofВ mind?
AnyВ such detailВ could have contributed toВ your panic attack, and after it’s over, it’s worth considering whether they did вЂ” particularly if this was an isolated incident. You might choose toВ swear offВ potentВ marijuana strains with high levels of THC, the cannabinoid responsible for weed’s psychoactiveВ “high,” or pick the time and place of your weed use more carefully. Strictly limiting the size of your doses is an even better idea.
But, as Vandrey pointed out, none of thisВ is a guarantee against another panic attack. And if theВ oneВ you hadВ fits into a larger pattern of recurrent behavior, then seeking a doctor’s opinion on the nature of your anxiety is the smart move. Even if you think you’reВ self-medicating yourВ anxiety with marijuana, you could be doing more harm than good.В
“CannabisВ I donвЂ™t think is any different thanВ anyВ other drug that can produce anxiety,” Vandrey said вЂ” and there are many drugsВ that can. So don’t let weed’s chill reputation fool you:В As with any prescription you pick up at the pharmacy, it’s essential to be informed of possible adverse effects.В
While many find weed a relaxing drug, marijuanaВ alsoВ has a direct connectionВ to panic attacks. Even aВ habitual smoker who seems the very definition of "chill" has likely had the experienceВ of being way too high, man. В In the moment, that can beвЂ¦