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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How To Combat Cannabis-Caused Anxiety
Cannabis is usually used to treat anxiety. However, it can cause exactly the same effect in some people. What does a cannabis anxiety feel like? And how do you deal with the symptoms?
Cannabis is one of the most powerful alternative medications on the planet. Many turn to it for relief for a range of physical and mental symptoms – including anxiety. Unfortunately, many people sometimes experience the exact opposite. Cannabis can cause panic and anxiety attacks in some individuals.
There are a couple of things you can do about this phenomenon. Other than just stop ingesting cannabis of course. The first most important thing is to realize what is happening to you. Recognition of the symptoms is the first step; dealing them is the next. Research is also a very important tool. There are some strains that have been bred to combat these kinds of feelings.
Best of all? There is also a good source of relief in another cannabinoid. Keep reading to find out which one.
WHAT DOES CANNABIS ANXIETY FEEL LIKE?
Anxiety is anxiety. We have all felt it. Some people call it “paranoia.” Others describe this as a panic attack. Essentially it is the feeling that something bad is going to happen. Or could happen. In turn, it causes a physical reaction – the body tenses up. Some people sweat. Others experience a racing heartbeat. The mind can loop on potentialities for a long time.
It is an absolutely horrible experience. It can occur on its own or as part of other symptomology.
Cannabis – more specifically certain cannabinoids, including CBD and THC, work in many cases to quell these feelings. Again it is not entirely understood why, but in some individuals, cannabis ingestion can cause the same, prickly, uncomfortable feelings.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A CANNABIS CAUSED PANIC ATTACK
The first problem, of course, is that these feelings are hard to pinpoint. This can also cause anxiety too. On top of that, many people turn to cannabis for relief of such symptoms – even if they do not recognize it. Many people who describe themselves as “recreational users” are actually people self-medicating, trying to relieve the tension of the day and the stress and anxiety that go with it.
If however, you begin to feel worse rather than better after lighting up, that is one sign.
Another sign is the desire to check outside the window for the cops. Unless you have recently robbed a bank, this “reality” you might be worried about is not about to happen.
You have to be observant of yourself in such situations, which is also never easy.
However, if you feel like this condition is happening to you after you have toked up, don’t panic. In fact, that is the worst thing you can do. You can bring yourself down fairly quickly, and after it is over, don’t worry. You can always go shopping for another strain that does not tend to cause these kinds of effects.
HOW TO RELIEVE A PANIC ATTACK IN PROGRESS
If you realize you are in the middle of a panic attack or feel rising anxiety caused by cannabis, good. That is the first step.
Second, take deep breaths. Try to ground yourself in the “now.” This will allow you to take immediate, concrete steps to make this feeling go away. Stepping outside for a few minutes might also do the trick. So does taking a quick shower. Or even sticking your head under the tap while running cold water over the nape of the neck.
Third, try to eat or drink something. It will have an instant impact on the chemicals in your bloodstream. What you eat or drink is also very important. Try a glass of lemonade, or a piece of fresh mango. These are laden in terpenes – just like cannabis in fact. And terpenes like pinene, myrcene, and caryophyllene all calm anxiety. They are also found in other foods too, like citrus fruit.
Now you have your feet and brain more or less back on track, continue to stay physically and or mentally “busy.” You could listen to music. You could go to the mall (although driving is a bad idea). You could clean the basement. The point is, the more you move, the better you will feel. The more you distract yourself in real time, the more you focus on your immediate surroundings, and the less your brain will wrap itself around disturbing distractions.
Remember, this will not last forever.
SWITCH YOUR CANNABINOIDS
Are you sweating bullets every time you take a toke of THC? If so, it is time to have a hard discussion with yourself. You might be one of those people for whom cannabis is not such a great thing. It is not the end of the world.
However before you come to this conclusion, there are other alternatives.
The first is to do your research – if you can – on what kinds of cannabis is bred specifically for “low anxiety” responses. Look for user guides. In general, the more “fruity” the aura of the cannabis, the less anxiety it will cause. Why? The same chemicals in citrus fruit are found in the plant.
Cannabis with lower THC also seems to cause fewer anxiety attacks in users. CBD, for example, does not cause panic attacks at all. If it is the psychoactive ingredient that causes you to have heebie jeebies, you may have to do without it.
CBD AS THE GO-TO PANIC ATTACK RELIEVER
CBD is in fact also a cannabinoid in its own right. Further, people who have panic attacks caused by THC may find this is their first and best line of defense. CBD occurs naturally in cannabis plants. It can, just like THC, be bred into higher percentages in strains. Some cannabis, in fact, has only trace elements of THC.
CBD also has a direct impact on how THC acts in the bloodstream. It is still not known exactly how this happens. However, one of the noted impacts already of CBD? It helps counteract the psychoactive effects of THC.
If you have had such reactions in the past, now is the time to take control. And even better news? This does not necessarily have to be as drastic as giving up on all THC. Do some strain research. Many high THC strains are also bred for high CBD. This might do the trick alone. A few drops of CBD oil under the tongue before you toke might be just the ticket.
While cannabis is frequently used to treat anxiety, it can also cause it. Here is how to recognize, treat, and avoid the symptoms.