Updated on August 26, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Anxiety is a well-known side effect of marijuana medicine. Some detractors even mention it to try to delegitimize cannabis’ overall safety and medical benefits. Cannabis can cause anxiety and panic attacks, but it works just like any medication’s side effect. When you take your medicine the way your doctor recommends, you can reduce or eliminate any anxiety symptoms. Let’s talk about the facts surrounding cannabis and anxiety attacks.
Why Does Marijuana Make Some People Anxious?
Marijuana consists of multiple compounds called cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid, makes you high when you use cannabis because it attaches to receptors in your brain. However, this phenomenon can also cause the THC to affect your amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear, stress and other emotions.
When the amygdala is overstimulated, it makes you feel paranoid, anxious and scared. This effect on your brain does not cause harm, but it can certainly feel unpleasant.
Certain risk factors increase a patient’s chance of feeling anxious when they take medical cannabis, like:
Tolerance: Everyone reacts to THC differently. The same amount could cause a severe panic attack in one person while another person barely notices it. Your body gets more used to THC as you take it.
Administration: The way you take your medicine impacts how quickly it takes effect. Edibles are notorious for side effects because you can underestimate how long it takes for them to kick in. Many new users accidentally take too much and experience intense effects.
Amount of THC: Higher doses of THC have a bigger risk of overstimulating your amygdala.
Other Sources of Anxiety: If something else is making you feel anxious, THC could make it worse. For example, you might have an existing anxiety disorder or feel nervous about taking your medicine in a new setting.
If you like to follow our content, you may know we often talk about marijuana’s anxiety-relieving benefits. So, why do we also mention that it can cause panic attacks? The answer lies in marijuana’s nature as a medicine. Many prescription medications have just one or two compounds in them. Meanwhile, cannabis has more than 85 cannabinoids, in addition to other components. Instead of working like a single medicine, marijuana acts like an entire medicine cabinet full of remedies. That’s why it can relieve so many conditions!
But, just like your medicine cabinet, every component in cannabis has its own benefits and side effects. THC can cause anxiety in some people, especially when they take it in large amounts. Imagine taking your pills for the day and having too much of a medication that can make you anxious. Sometimes, a patient takes medicine with too much THC in it, and it causes a feeling of panic. In this scenario, they need to try another kind of marijuana medication.
What Does a Cannabis-Related Anxiety Attack Look Like?
The symptoms of a cannabis-induced panic attack vary from person to person, but they can include:
Feeling dizzy or weak
Sweating or chills
A feeling of doom and unease
If you already know what happens during a regular panic attack, a cannabis-induced anxiety attack has the same symptoms. Sometimes it causes mild problems, while in other cases the patient can feel like they will die.
In most cases, a panic attack will cause no danger to the person experiencing it. However, if you have a history of heart or lung problems, you may want to get medical attention. Your symptoms could indicate another problem.
How Should a Patient Handle Marijuana-Induced Anxiety?
Marijuana-related anxiety often happens because the patient took too much THC for their tolerance. To relieve the stress, you need to let the THC metabolize and calm down as best you can. You may feel like you need to go to the ER because you have a heart attack or breathing issue. But, unless you have existing problems, you don’t need medical help.
Try these strategies if you start to panic after medicating:
Relax: If you have a go-to way to relax, do that activity. You can also lie down for a bit, watch your favorite movie or take a bath.
Distract Your Mind: Take your mind off your anxiety while your body processes the THC. Distract yourself by taking a walk or talking to a friend.
Breathe: Focus on breathing in and out slowly, especially if the panic attack causes you to breathe too quickly. You will find your mind clearing up in no time.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Getting a Cannabis-Related Panic Attack?
If you get an anxiety attack after taking marijuana medicine, you don’t have to stop taking it for good. Instead, you just need to change the way you medicate. These approaches can help:
Take a Lower Dose: In some cases, a smaller amount of THC will provide relief with little to no psychoactive side effects. Only take a little THC at a time and listen to your doctor’s recommendations. You can always take another small dose if you don’t feel enough of an effect.
Use a Different Strain: Some varieties of the marijuana plant cause a stronger high than others. Ask your budtender about strains and products that have fewer psychoactive effects.
Increase Your CBD Dosage: Cannabidiol (CBD), the other main cannabinoid in marijuana, counteracts THC’s effects. Look for medicine that balances THC out with CBD. As a bonus, you get to benefit from CBD’s symptom relief and the positive effects of THC.
Who Can Help Me Minimize the Risk of Panic Attacks?
Professionals in the medical marijuana industry understand how THC interacts with your body. If you have a sensitivity to THC or want advice, we recommend getting their help. Even in states with legal recreational marijuana, cannabis-positive doctors can help you plan your treatment. Also, the staff members at medical dispensaries are excellent and helping patients find a treatment that works for them. Feel free to use our resources to find the perfect solution for your treatment plan.