Five Ways to Prevent an Anxious High
Alone in my bedroom well past midnight, I began to wonder if that pot brownie I devoured earlier was laced with shrooms. With every twist and turn of the kaleidoscopic patterns forming before my eyes, my heart pounded even harder. “Wait, is the weed giving me a heart attack?” I worried. (I called my medical marijuana doctor the next day to ask if such a thing were possible. It’s not.)
Surely there couldn’t have been shrooms in the brownie—it came from a medical marijuana dispensary. But nonetheless, I was freaking out, and even worse, I was ashamed of the way I was feeling—why couldn’t I just get high and be chill?
I’ve had my ups and downs with weed for the now ten years it’s been part of my life, though I’ve always been a moderate consumer. Still, the journey through and past my weed anxiety has been a pursuit in self-knowledge and a rewarding path to becoming more grounded.
“As a society, there’s this stigma that anxiety is negative. Before we normalize cannabis, we have to normalize anxiety,” says Jessica Assaf, founder of Cannabis Feminist, a community that empowers women who use both recreational and medical marijuana. “Often, we are ashamed of the anxiety, and that is more dangerous than the anxiety itself.”
She also asserts that getting high is also about relinquishing control. “It’s ultimately recognizing that you have to let go and let the plant do the healing,” Assaf says. “If you go back to the facts and the science, it can be very reassuring: We all have an endocannabinoid system with receptors that exist to bind perfectly to the compounds in the plant.” Here’s some advice from a few experts on how to get your body and mind on the same page when trying to kick back and enjoy a high that actually feels like one.
Cannabis has a biphasic effect, meaning that a low dose can have the opposite effect of a high dose. Half a brownie could have you feeling euphoric, while the whole brownie will have you freaking out. The professionals I spoke with all recommended “start low and go slow.” Wait about ten minutes between hits, or—as Julie Holland, New York-based psychiatrist and author of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis recommends—wait about two hours between edible doses to know a product’s effect before having more.
As I learned the hard way, THC—the main psychoactive compound in cannabis—is likely to feel more psychedelic when you digest it. That’s because your liver turns it into 11-Hydroxy-THC, an active metabolite, which is more psychedelic and lasts longer than regular THC, explains Holland.
Mind your surroundings.
Remember “set and setting,” cautions California-based psychotherapist Ron Alexander, a clinical trainer in the field of mindfulness meditation. “Most people who have a predisposition to social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and/or panic attack should use cannabis at home where they can create a quiet and relaxing atmosphere,” he says. “As the cannabis effect is coming on—for example after ingesting an edible—do some yoga and stretching, meditate, write in a journal, or look at beautiful art books and magazines.”Advice from someone who's had her share of anxiety from smoking weed.
Chill or Anxious AF? How Weed Affects Anxiety
There are plenty of people out there who claim cannabis is the key to quieting anxiety and achieving a state of blissed-out relaxation. Yeah, you know who you are.
But there’s probably just as many people who claim that weed sends them spiraling into panic, paranoia, and anxious thoughts — making their anxiety about a million times worse.
Personally, I’ve experienced both. Sometimes, a few hits are all it takes for my mind to stop racing, for my shoulders to relax, and for me to (finally!) chill the eff out.
Other times, those same few hits can send me into a full-blown panic, hyperventilating on the floor of the bathroom, convinced I’m going to be high and trapped in the hot, anxious mess that is my brain from now until eternity.
So, what’s the deal? Why is weed a virtual miracle cure for some people’s anxiety and completely anxiety-inducing for others?
And, more importantly, how can you make sure your experience with cannabis has you feeling less anxious and totally relaxed — instead of on the verge of panic?
The first thing to understand about cannabis and anxiety is that not all weed is created equal.
There’s hundreds of compounds (known as cannabinoids) produced by the cannabis plant, but when it comes to anxiety, there’s two you need to know about: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is what most people think of when they think of cannabis. It’s the compound responsible for getting you “high.”
CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychotropic — meaning it’s not going to produce the same “oh man, I’m so stoned” feeling you get from THC.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cannabis — it’s not like CBD is better than THC or vice versa.
But understanding the differences between the two — and how it relates to your particular brand of anxiety — can help make your experience with cannabis more anxiety-relieving and less anxiety-inducing.
“There are a lot of different types of anxiety which will definitely influence how people respond to different forms of treatment or therapeutic intervention with something like cannabis.
“Anxiety can be anticipatory or it could be generalized or it can be connected to depression or it could be more of a panic disorder,” says Emma Chasen, cannabis educator and founder of Eminent Consulting Firm. “And so all of those different types will respond differently to cannabis.”
If your anxiety goes hand in hand with an overall “blah” feeling, THC can be just what you need to lift your spirits. “For people who have anxiety connected to depression [or] general dysphoria, THC can actually be really helpful because it is euphoric,” says Chasen.
But THC — especially in high doses — can cause a cascade of side effects, like elevated heart rate or racing thoughts. This can actually exacerbate certain kinds of anxiety. And that’s where CBD comes in.
“CBD is non-psychotropic, so it’s not going to give you any of those negative side effects,” says Chasen.
“It may help to alleviate some more anticipatory anxiety, some more generalized social anxiety and may even help with panic disorders because it does influence and interact with your serotonin system.”
So, in a nutshell, too much THC can definitely create a more anxiety-inducing smoke sesh, while CBD can help you chill out, but won’t get you stoned.
Luckily, you can have your cake and eat it too — according to Chasen, a mix of THC and CBD may be the best approach to using cannabis to feel less anxious and more relaxed (and get a nice buzz in the process).
“I would definitely look for something with a mixed ratio of cannabinoids,” says Chasen. “A 1:1 or a 2:1 ratio of THC to CBD will typically be very helpful at stimulating euphoria and decreasing anxiety — especially if you take it very slow and low [with your] dosage.”
Finding the right balance of CBD and THC is key to keeping your anxiety in check when using cannabis. But if you want to take weed’s anxiety-fighting benefits to the next level, there’s something else you want to be mindful of — and that’s terpenes.
Terpenes are the fragrant oils that give each cannabis plant its distinct aroma. And just like cannabinoids, different terpenes produce different effects — including effects that can lower anxiety.
Chasen says there are terpenes that have “documented anti-anxiety properties.”
According to Chasen, there are three terpenes you should be on the lookout for if you want to use cannabis to treat your anxiety — limonene, linalool, and beta-caryophyllene.
If your anxiety has you feeling down or depressed, look for limonene, which can create euphoria and put a little anxiety-busting pep in your step.
“Limonene [is] the terpene found in the rind of citrus fruit [and] it does interact with your serotonin and dopamine receptors and helps to stimulate euphoria, so that is a great one to help reduce anxiety,” says Chasen.
If you’re more in the market for a major de-stressor that will help you chill out and log a solid night of shut-eye, try linalool, a compound of lavender that has a more sedative, relaxing effect.
“We know that lavender is a good de-stressor, and linalool is a compound of lavender — so it does the same type of thing in cannabis,” says Chasen.
And if you’re looking for something in between the euphoria of limonene and the chill sleepiness of linalool, try beta-caryophyllene.
“Beta-caryophyllene, which is found in black pepper and cinnamon, also has some really wonderful anti-anxiety properties,” says Chasen.
“If limonene is the more uplifting one and linalool is the more sedating one, then beta-caryophyllene is kind of right in the middle. It’s more analogous to like a glass of red wine at the end of a long day [to help you unwind.]”
Getting the right blend of THC, CBD, and anxiety-busting terpenes is key to having a positive experience with cannabis. But there’s a few other things you’ll want to keep in mind to make sure your next foray into the world of weed is chill, relaxed, and anxiety-free:
- Control your consumption. There’s lots of different ways to consume cannabis (tinctures and gummies and flower, oh my!). But if you want to have the most control of your experience, try edibles. “With edibles, you can really take a very precise dose,” says Chasen. “With smoking, it’s a lot harder to measure your dose.”
- Take it low and slow. If you’re using THC, the best way to keep anxiety at bay is to start with a low dose and then slowly add more THC until you find the dose that gives you the high you’re looking for — without the side dish of anxiety. If you’re using edibles, Chasen recommends starting with 2.5 milligrams. “Monitor how it makes you feel and don’t consume any more for that entire [episode],” says Chasen. If you feel like you need more, increase your dosage by 1 milligram per consumption period until you find your sweet spot.
- Counteract THC-induced anxiety with CBD. If you find yourself feeling overly anxious from THC, you can counteract those anxious feelings with a healthy dose of CBD. “Smoking or vaping CBD can provide immediate relief from THC-induced anxiety,” Chasen explains. Depending on your dose of THC, you may need to consume a decent amount of CBD to get rid of the anxiety — but it will definitely help you feel better (and fast).