Anxiety and Cannabis: Why Cannabis Induces Anxiety and How to Choose Products That Reduce It

post-it notes showing anxiety

It’s no secret that cannabis can induce some pretty intense panic attacks and paranoia – so how is it possible that marijuana can also be used to treat anxiety? The answer comes down to a few different factors, including the method of consumption, ratio of THC to CBD, cannabis strain selection, and your personal cannabis tolerance level.

Understanding How Anxiety and Cannabis Work with Brain Chemistry

profile shot of man with drawings showing the connections the brain makes

Even though many people rave about how cannabis helps them relax, de-stress, and experience more creative freedom, that experience is not universal. Plenty more people feel overwhelmed, anxious, and disoriented after smoking or ingesting cannabis. The reason cannabis use produces such a wide array of experiences comes down to each individual person’s brain chemistry.

When you’re eating or smoking cannabis, THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors in your brain and releases the neurotransmitters dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. These chemicals are notoriously associated with feeling calm and happy, but for some people, a large rush of these chemicals can have the opposite effect.  The effects are explained in depth by author Suzannah Weiss in an article for Tonic, but in a nutshell, people who are more type A or anxiety prone tend to experience that heightened dopamine rush isolated in the limbic forebrain, which can trigger both anxiety and fear of social judgment.

But, if you have anxiety and experienced “super-anxiety” after using cannabis, all hope is not lost – anxiety and cannabis do not have to be enemies! You can still get amazing benefits from cannabis if you’re willing to research some of the factors below, which can greatly impact the feelings and chemical reactions that occur when you get high.

Method of Cannabis Consumption

cannabis edibles, cookies and oreos, with marijuana bud on top of a cookie

Here's the deal – if you’re prone to anxiety or have had anxiety attacks from cannabis in the past, dabbing, concentrates, and THC edibles are not going to be the best mode of consumption for you. These forms of cannabis consumption tend to have incredibly high doses of THC, last a long time, and can be intense. For those that do well with THC, that’s exactly why they like it! You can still toke up if you’re anxiety prone, but avoid high THC strains and methods of consumption that produce effects that last a long time. That way, if you don’t like the effect the product produces, it will fade relatively quickly and you can avoid it in the future.

Ratio of THC to CBD

Perhaps one of the most important factors when selecting a cannabis product that helps with anxiety is the ratio of THC to CBD. Cannabidiol (CBD) has exploded on the cannabis scene lately, and it is easy to see why. CBDs produce the same anti-inflammatory and calming effects of THC, but without the feeling of being high. While THC activates the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor in your mind and body, CBDs block the very same receptors, causing a more mellow response to cannabis.

If you have anxiety, you can always opt for products that just have CBD in them (like CBD-infused coffee) or products that offer a higher or equal ratio of CBDs to THC. Many people with anxiety tend to do best with cannabis products (even edibles) that are 1:1, meaning equal parts THC to CBD. Products that are higher in CBD than THC also tend to be beneficial. The average joint passed around at a party is incredibly high in THC and has little to no CBD, hence the debilitating or “frozen” feelings of social anxiety.

Increased interest in CBDs has resulted in some higher CBD strains in dispensaries, but it’s a fairly new trend in the cannabis market. In any case, if you’re interested in trying out a high CBD product, start with something that has no THC, see if it helps, and then experiment with different ratios of THC to CBD.

Finding the Right Strain and Terpenes for Anxiety

close up of terpenes on a marijuana

One of the main benefits to come out of the legalization of cannabis is that science has shown the general public so much about the chemical properties of the plant. Cannabis plants contain terpenes that are shared by other plants such as lemons, lavender, pine, and mint. For a long time, terpenes were just thought to enhance the flavor of the smoke, but researchers are now finding that strains high in specific terpenes, like limonene and linalool, are excellent for uplifting mood and reducing both paranoia and anxiety. If your anxiety and cannabis consumption aren’t mutually exclusive, you can try experimenting with different strains (sativas or indicas) and select ones (like Lemon Haze, Lemon Drop, or Grapefruit Haze) that tend to be more uplifting.

Understanding Anxiety and Cannabis Tolerance Levels

Different cannabis strains to show how you can choose strains based on what effects you want

Whether you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, feel anxious from time to time, or only get anxiety when you use cannabis, it’s important to know your limits with weed. It definitely seems like a harmless little plant, but when you use too much, it can be really scary. If you’re interested in cannabis and want to try it for the first time, make sure you take it easy and go for a low dose edible or topical product. If you’re smoking or vaping cannabis, go for a lower THC option. Also, don’t be afraid to tell the budtender at your local dispensary that it’s your first time using cannabis, and ask what they recommend for beginners. They will know their product selection really well and can point you in the direction of something that is a lower dose with the effects you’re looking for. And of course, try to use it in a comfortable and safe space – the act of hiding marijuana use is usually what triggers panic attacks!

So...Can Cannabis Really Be Used to Treat Anxiety?

In general, there is no proof that anxiety and cannabis have to be a bad mix. Even if the side effect of some cannabis products is paranoia, people with anxiety can still get benefits from CBDs and lower dose THC options. However, self-medication is not usually recommended. If you’re experiencing regular symptoms of anxiety, you should probably consult a medical professional and only experiment with cannabis if they think it is appropriate for you.