Anxiety is a common side effect of marijuana. Yet many people use marijuana to relieve stress and anxiety.
For every story of panic resulting from being too high, there is another about how marijuana has provided life-changing relief from chronic anxiety.
Studies show that marijuana has anti-anxiety properties, which can help people with disorders such as PTSD and social anxiety.
Many factors contribute to marijuana’s effect on anxiety. Strain composition, drug tolerance, environmental factors and pre-existing conditions can all influence whether you feel panicked or relaxed after using marijuana.
Here we look at the evidence and explanations underlying both sides of this complex story.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or concern, usually about an upcoming event or a situation full of uncertainty.
Anxiety can be a motivator (e.g. to sit down and study for a big test) or a useful warning to be cautious in a dangerous situation.
Anxiety disorders tend to persist, even in day-to-day life. People suffering from anxiety disorders will feel anxious to the point that it impacts their work, relationships and overall wellbeing.
There are many types of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety. Each of these disorders presents with slightly different, but debilitating symptoms.
Anxiety disorders are very common, and affect nearly one-third of all adults at some point in their lives.
A number of risk factors can increase your chances of suffering from anxiety, including genetics, personality, and gender (females are more likely to experience anxiety).
Can Marijuana Help Anxiety?
Relief from anxiety is one of the most commonly cited reasons for using marijuana. What’s more, scientists are starting to uncover evidence that marijuana may be a highly effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
The use of cannabis for treating anxiety was first described in 1563, when Portugese physician Garcia de Orta claimed that cannabis could deliver sufferers from “all worries and care.” The effects of marijuana have been described as calming, relaxing and even hypnotic.
Many long-time users of marijuana report that the drug reduces their anxiety, citing relaxation and stress relief as the main benefits.
In addition to anecdotal evidence, there is some science to back up what many users claim.
A 2014 study from Vanderbilt University found that smoking marijuana can increase the presence of naturally-occurring brain chemicals called endocannabinoids, which are reduced as a result of chronic stress. Some researchers think that a reduction of endocannabinoids could be a major cause of anxiety disorders.
Marijuana may also be more safe and effective than traditional anxiety medications.
A recent Canadian study found that within 90 days of using prescribed medical cannabis for anxiety and pain, 40% of patients were able to stop using benzodiazepines — a commonly prescribed anxiety drug with a number of side effects, including a high potential for abuse.
Studies also suggest that marijuana could be an effective treatment for PTSD. Since marijuana is known to play a direct role in memory extinction, some experts believe that it could help PTSD sufferers forget bad memories and negative experiences.
Can Marijuana Cause Anxiety?
Marijuana can cause short-term anxiety or paranoia, especially when taken in large doses.
Being new to marijuana can increase your chances of feeling anxious after smoking. Being in an unfamiliar or stressful environment can also lead to anxiety or panic attacks, even in those who use cannabis frequently.
Acute anxiety can also occur after abruptly stopping cannabis use (also known as cannabis withdrawal).
Anxiety can lead some people to avoid using marijuana, and is the most common reason given for stopping use. However, scientific research has not yet made a strong case for marijuana as a risk factor in developing anxiety.
A 2009 review of over 30 studies on cannabis use and anxiety found a small association between cannabis use and anxiety disorders. Specifically, evidence suggests that people with anxiety disorders are more likely to use cannabis for various reasons.
Another study concluded that cannabis use is at most a “minor risk factor” in developing symptoms of anxiety.
One study from Oxford University found that injecting healthy adults who had previously used cannabis with THC led to paranoid thoughts in 20% of participants. However, the negative effects declined once THC left the blood stream.
The relationship between cannabis use and anxiety is still unclear in the long-term.
Scientists aren’t sure whether the increased anxiety in cannabis users is a result of marijuana use, or if people with anxiety turn to marijuana as a way of self-medicating their pre-existing symptoms.
Effects of CBD and THC
The two main components of marijuana, THC and CBD, can have very different effects. Many people find that CBD reduces anxiety, whereas THC is more likely to increase their anxiety.
THC produces psychoactive effects that some may find helpful for anxiety, but for others it can exacerbate existing worries.
The interaction of CBD and THC is complex. The ratio of these two compounds within a specific strain may in fact be more predictive of whether it increases or decreases anxiety. For example, strains with higher CBD levels are less likely to cause anxiety than high-THC strains.
For new users strictly seeking anxiety relief, trying CBD oil before experimenting with dried or whole-leaf cannabis may be a wise choice.
When trying to avoid marijuana-induced anxiety, knowing your optimal dose is crucial.
Unfortunately, the lack of regulation on the sale of marijuana means it is up to the user to figure out what works best for them. There are a few guidelines, however, that can help you determine the ideal dose for anxiety relief.
New or infrequent users are more likely to experience anxiety than regular users.
With repeated use over time, a tolerance to marijuana develops, and it takes more of the drug to produce the same effects as before. Genetic predispositions can also influence how readily users are affected by marijuana.
Over time, regular users tend to become more familiar with the feelings associated with being high, and are less likely to experience anxiety as a result.
Regardless of tolerance, ingesting more marijuana will usually result in a stronger high.
Even for seasoned users who typically experience anxiety relief from using marijuana, very high doses can result in a short-term increase in anxiety.
For people that are new to marijuana, apprehensive, or have had previous issues with anxiety while using marijuana, it is best to start with a small dose. It’s easy to take more later, but only time will lessen the high.
It is important to know that tolerance is not 100% predictable, even in regular marijuana users. Taking a break from using the drug, even for just a few days, can make users more sensitive to their usual dose.
Using the drug in unfamiliar or stressful settings can also cause a temporary reduction in marijuana tolerance.
Best Strains For Anxiety
As most users know, different strains of marijuana can produce very different effects. As a result, choosing the right strain can make a huge difference in how anxious or relaxed you feel after smoking.
Indica vs. Sativa
As a general rule, indica strains are preferred over sativas for treating anxiety.
Sativa strains tend to be more uplifting and have an energizing effect on the mind and body. Indica strains are more often associated with feelings of calmness, relaxation, and stress relief.
THC and CBD
The experience of heightened anxiety after taking marijuana can also be due to the cannabinoid levels of a particular strain.
A higher ratio of CBD in a strain can help to counteract the potentially anxiety-inducing effects of THC. Pure CBD extracts are highly unlikely to cause anxiety.
CBD, when taken alone in 600mg doses, has been shown to reduce social anxiety and feelings of anxiety associated with public speaking.
THC seems to have opposite effects on anxiety levels depending on the dosage, with THC acting to decrease anxiety at lower doses yet increasing anxiety at higher doses.
Despite what many believe, THC and CBD do not always predict the effects of a strain.
Terpenes, another group of compounds found in cannabis, can both modify the effects of cannabinoids and produce effects of their own.
Common terpenes in marijuana include:
- Myrcene (relaxes muscles, aids with sleep)
- Linalool (anti-anxiety, sedative)
- β-Caryophyllene (anti-anxiety, antidepressant)
- Terpinolene (sedative, aids with sleep)
How To Avoid or Deal With Anxiety
There are a few methods that can be used to prevent marijuana-induced anxiety, or help you cope with it once it’s begun.
Dosing: Know your tolerance. Always start with a lower dose, and work your way up.
Choosing the right strain: In general, high-CBD and low-THC indicas are a good starting point, but there are plenty of options for those seeking anxiety relief.
Black pepper: Smelling freshly ground pepper or chewing on a few black peppercorns has been reported to decrease anxiety from marijuana almost instantly.
Passionflower extracts/teas: Passionflower extracts and teas have relaxing benefits on their own, and can help calm anxiety from taking other drugs. There is scientific evidence that passionflower acts directly on calming chemicals in the brain.
Distract yourself: Watch a funny show, listen to music, eat, stretch, take a warm shower, whatever makes you normally feel calm and happy.
Train your mind: Remind yourself that you are safe, and that these uncomfortable feelings will pass. Meditative exercises like box breathing can also help you get into a more relaxed state.
Although many people have experienced anxiety from using marijuana, it can also be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Scientists still aren’t sure how marijuana can both cause and treat anxiety, but there are many factors that can contribute.
Paying attention to strain composition and dosing can help to minimize acute anxiety and help you reap the many anti-anxiety benefits that marijuana has to offer.
It is normal for both new and experienced users to experience anxiety after taking marijuana. But coping methods like chewing black pepper, breathing exercises and mental distraction can help make your high less panicked and more relaxed.