Sometimes, people who consume cannabis feel pleasantly mellow and anxiety-free. Other times, marijuana consumption results in paranoid feelings that can leave you anything but relaxed. So how can the same plant produce two completely opposite reactions? The answer comes down to brain chemistry and individual experiences.
How Marijuana Affects the Brain
In order to understand why cannabis sometimes causes relaxation and sometimes causes paranoia, it's important to understand how marijuana’s compounds affect the human brain. The compounds in marijuana are called cannabinoids. You’re probably familiar with two of them: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). When you consume marijuana, the cannabinoids react with receptors in your brain. Many of these receptors are located in the amygdala, which is responsible for processing complex emotions such as:
As the cannabinoids react within the brain, they influence the function of the amygdala, causing a series of emotions that can be either positive (relaxation and happiness) or negative (paranoia and anxiety).
THC & Endocannabinoids’ Influence on Anxiety
In some cases, THC can overstimulate the brain, leading to feelings of paranoia and anxiety. This is especially common in people who are new marijuana consumers. You may even remember these feelings when you first started out on your cannabis journey.
Nobody knows exactly why THC produces anxious feelings on some occasions but not on others. One working theory is that we rely on a store of natural endocannabinoids that the body makes, that act very similarly to the compounds found in marijuana. The brains of people who’ve suffered trauma or intense stress have been found to have lower levels of endocannabinoids. When individuals with depleted endocannabinoid levels consume cannabis, the cannabinoids from the plant replenish the body's store of endocannabinoids, which produces a relaxing effect.
This may offer some hint as to why marijuana makes some people feel relaxed and others anxious. While further research is needed to solidify this connection, researchers are optimistic about the potential treatments that this connection may pose for people suffering from mood disorders.
Your Natural Anxiety Levels May Predict How Cannabis Will Affect You
The first thing to understand about the connection between cannabis and anxiety is that your pre-marijuana anxiety levels have a huge effect on post-marijuana anxiety levels. According to a 2014 review of 31 studies, there’s a positive association between cannabis users and anxiety disorders.
Additionally, a 2009 study on the same subject concluded that these consumers generally show signs of anxiety disorders before they show signs of cannabis dependence. Researchers interpreted these results to mean that people who are naturally prone to anxiety tend to use cannabis as a means to cope with that anxiety. This theory lies in direct opposition to the theory that cannabis causes anxiety.
However, it’s important to remember that the presence of anxiety is highly dependent upon many factors, including:
- Family history
- Personal history of paranoia or anxiety
For cannabis consumers, other factors like the frequency of cannabis use and the dosage can affect anxiety levels as well. With that being said, researchers have noted that people who consume marijuana on a regular basis actually see a decrease in anxiety levels. As a general rule, new users or those who consume a high level of THC are more likely to experience marijuana-induced paranoia or anxiety.
Avoiding Paranoia & Anxiety When Consuming Marijuana
Despite the fact that marijuana and anxiety are highly individualized, there are things you can do to avoid marijuana-induced anxiety and paranoia including:
- Opting for cannabis strains low in THC and/or high in CBD. Non-psychoactive CBD counteracts the anxiety that THC can produce. This is especially important if you’re new to marijuana or if you’ve experienced anxiety and paranoia while consuming marijuana in the past. Strains low in THC and high in CBD include ACDC and Cannatonic.
- Paying attention to proper dosing. Regardless of whether a consumer is an experienced marijuana user or not, it's important to be careful about how much marijuana you consume. Nowadays many cannabis products either help you consume a measured dose or at least list how many milligrams of THC are contained in their product.
- Always consuming in a comfortable and calm space. While it’s not always possible, choosing to consume cannabis products at home rather than in a crowded setting can help reduce the likelihood of marijuana-induced paranoia.
- Switching up your marijuana strains. If you’re having difficulty avoiding anxiety even after trying the above tips, consider consuming a different marijuana strain. While this may seem like a simple tip, every strain of marijuana offers a distinct selection of chemicals, which affect the body differently. And what works for one person may not work for another. When experimenting with new strains, remember that sativa strains generally produce a more active experience while indica strains are known to be more mellow and relaxing.
- Trying a different consumption method. If you’ve always smoked your cannabis, try vaping or ingesting capsules. Since everyone’s biochemistry is different, these various methods mean the body absorbs cannabinoids in distinct ways. One consumption method might agree with you more than another. If you’re going to try a new cannabis consumption method, start slowly and make sure you’re in your calm and comfortable space when you do.
While marijuana-induced anxiety and paranoia do occasionally happen, there are steps you can take to avoid these negative emotions. By being educated about how marijuana affects the brain and knowing what to do to limit the risk of anxiety and paranoia, you can be proactive about ensuring a positive marijuana experience every time.
Photo credit: Aaron Tait