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Does marijuana help with anxiety? Maybe, but reports are mixed

Research is scarce about how marijuana can affect anxiety symptoms like irritability, muscle tension, and excessive worrying. For some people, marijuana may even increase anxiety.

Here’s what experts know so far about how chemicals in marijuana affect the brain and why that may help, or enhance anxiety.

The uses of marijuana for anxiety

There are two main chemical compounds in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Both attach to specific receptors in the brain, which trigger the various sensations you feel. THC is the chemical that produces the high you experience when you use marijuana, while CBD has a more subtle, non-intoxicating effect.

Though some US states have legalized marijuana, there are still restrictions in place against using marijuana in medical research. Therefore, there’s limited scientific proof that marijuana can alleviate anxiety. But that hasn’t stopped people from using the drug to find relief.

A 2016 survey of medical marijuana users found that 58 percent of users say they use marijuana to treat their anxiety. And in a small 2012 study, two-thirds of college students with high social anxiety reported that they smoke marijuana to help them cope with social situations.

Given the lack of scientific research, it’s unclear what chemical in the marijuana plant may help with anxiety — whether it’s THC, CBD, a combination of both, or something else entirely.

But a 2015 review of 40 preliminary studies on CBD found that this chemical may play a key role. The researchers said they found encouraging, preliminary results that concentrated doses of CBD oil, when taken regularly, could be an effective treatment for a host of anxiety disorders including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

The drawbacks of marijuana for anxiety

Even if the restrictions on marijuana were lifted, and researchers could use it in their studies, there’s another problem.

Both anxiety disorders and marijuana sensations are individualized. So, marijuana may help one person with their anxiety but not another. Take the following example:

Someone with generalized anxiety disorder symptoms like difficulty sleeping may have a better reaction to marijuana than someone with panic disorder who fears losing control.

Even worse, using marijuana could enhance symptoms of anxiety for some people, says James Giordano, PhD, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“Some are overly sensitive to the ‘activating’ effects of THC, and this can induce anxiety, rather than reduce or relieve it,” Giordano says.

Then, there’s the chance that smoking marijuana won’t reduce or enhance anxiety at all. That was the case for college students surveyed in a 2012 study who said they did not see a significant change in their anxiety after smoking.

The risks of using marijuana

Even if marijuana does help with your anxiety symptoms, it comes with risks to your physical health. For example, it can impair motor coordination and control.

“This could be problematic when driving, or engaging in tasks that require fine motor and coordination skills,” Giordano says.

Using marijuana has also been found to cause short-term memory loss in people who start smoking it in their teen years. Though, how it affects long-term memory is unclear.

Lastly, a 2018 review found evidence that smoking marijuana can increase the risk of heart issues like an irregular heartbeat — particularly in older age groups. Though, this may be a consequence of the act of smoking and not related to what is being smoked.

The bottom line

It’s difficult to say whether marijuana can help you, specifically, with anxiety.

If you do decide to try marijuana, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it to get a professional opinion, Giordano says.

If it’s a new experience, it’s best to start with a very small amount and to be in an environment that can give you support and assistance if needed.

Studying marijuana is restricted, but researchers have evidence that the CBD compound in marijuana may help treat many different anxiety disorders.

Using Marijuana for Treating Anxiety

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

Verywell / Cindy Chung

As more states legalize marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use, more and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although scientific research in this area is still sparse, there are anecdotal and new scientific reports of marijuana creating a calming experience that temporarily relieves symptoms of anxiety for many people.

Marijuana as Self-Medication

Anytime you take it upon yourself to use a substance to treat or cope with a medical problem or symptom, it is referred to as self-medicating. Often, self-medicating produces an immediate relief of the uncomfortable symptoms, thereby reinforcing its use.

The problem with self-medication is that even though the use of marijuana is becoming more acceptable, not enough is known about the efficacy of the drug for particular medical conditions as well as its long-term consequences.

Potential Benefits and Risks

May reduce depression in the short term

May relieve anxiety temporarily

May reduce stress

Higher levels of psychiatric disorders

Can create psychological dependence

Long-term memory loss may occur

Symptoms may increase

May develop cannabis hyperemesis syndrome

Can create increased tolerance and need

Benefits

The scientific community has recently started examining the effect of cannabis on anxiety, and the verdict is that short-term benefits do exist.

Scientists at Washington State University published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in the short term. However, repeated use doesn’t seem to lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms and in some individuals may increase depression over time.

Risks

Marijuana can affect your body in many ways beyond just getting you high. The high feeling you may experience after smoking or ingesting marijuana is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.

The effects of THC do not come without risks, and long-term or frequent use has been associated several potential side effects.  

Higher Levels of Psychiatric Disorders

It is possible that people who use marijuana for an extended period of time have higher levels and symptoms of depression, despite any improvements they may have seen in this regard with short-term use.

Some research has also shown that heavy use of marijuana in adolescence (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of depression and anxiety later on in a person’s life. Certain susceptible individuals are also at risk for the development of psychosis with the use of cannabis.

Psychological Dependence

The central problem with using marijuana as an anxiety coping tool is that it can create a psychological dependence on the substance.

Since the effects of marijuana are fast acting, long-term behavior-based coping strategies may seem less helpful at first and may be less likely to be developed.

Long-Term Memory Loss

Several studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because THC alters one of the areas of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation. It also can have negative consequences on the brain’s motivation system.

Increase in Symptoms

THC can raise your heart rate, which, if you have anxiety, may make you feel even more anxious. Using too much marijuana can also make you feel scared or paranoid.

In some cases, marijuana can also induce orthostatic hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure when standing, which can cause lightheadedness or feeling faint. Cannabis can also cause feelings of dizziness, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision, which can contribute to anxiety.

Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome

A rare consequence of frequent marijuana use, particularly with today’s more potent strains, is cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This involves cyclical nausea and vomiting.

This is paradoxical and can be difficult to diagnose, as marijuana has been used to decrease nausea and vomiting in cancer treatment. Sufferers sometimes find relief in hot baths and showers, but ultimately, abstinence from marijuana is necessary for long-term improvement.

Escalating Need

You can develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means that the more you use it, the more you will eventually need to get the same “high” as earlier experiences.

Alternatives to Marijuana

Remember that some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful when you are confronted with something that feels threatening to you. However, when feeling anxious becomes pervasive and difficult to control, it is time to seek professional help to discuss other forms of anxiety management.

Therapy

Proactive coping strategies, learned through counseling, support groups, as well as self-help books and educational websites, can create lasting change without the negative components of extended marijuana use.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy can help you determine the underlying cause of your anxiety and manage it more effectively.   Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.

Working with a psychotherapist to manage your anxiety will give you a better handle on your condition in the long run.

Medication

The use of certain prescription medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been firmly established as safe and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.  

Prescription medication is also preferable to marijuana since the long-term risks have been better studied and are potentially less significant compared to long-term marijuana use. Some anti-anxiety medications are taken daily, while others are taken episodically during periods of extreme anxiety or a panic attack.

A psychiatrist or your primary care doctor can prescribe you an anti-anxiety medication, should you need one.

Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil

CBD oil, a marijuana extract that is often dispersed under the tongue with a dropper, doesn’t contain THC, so it won’t give you the same mind-altering effects as marijuana. There is some beginning evidence to suggest that CBD could be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and addiction, but more clinical trials and research are needed in this area.  

A Word From Verywell

Symptoms of anxiety are treatable. Studies show that psychotherapy and medication are effective for most individuals, whereas the long-term effects of self-medicating with marijuana have yet to be clearly established. If you’ve recently started experimenting with marijuana use to treat your anxiety, be sure to tell your doctor.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Using marijuana can provide short-term symptom relief for anxiety, but there are risks to consider. Learn more about this and longer-term options.