Adverse effects from smoking marijuana explained

Published Feb 16, 2019 10:31 p.m. ET

Almost every marijuana user out there has had at least one experience with cannabis that didn’t go well. Usually it’s a person’s first try at using the drug that ends up causing an adverse reaction. Cannabis seems to have the ability to sooth and assist some while inducing severe weed paranoia, anxiety or depression in others. Adverse reactions can range in severity from feeling slightly uncomfortable to feeling like you are dying. It seems strange that something so often prescribed to sufferers of PTSD could induce similar symptoms. So, why does weed make you paranoid or anxious?

How marijuana interacts with the human brain

The effects that are experienced when consuming weed or THC laced products begins in how your brain reacts to cannabinoids like THC. THC will bind itself to the receptors in the user’s brain which are in a section of the brain called the amygdala. This specific portion of the brain controls emotional processes which include those that govern responses like paranoia, stress, or fear. When the cannabinoids bind, they appear to alter the function of neural communications. They are either soothed which for some will provide a profound, soothing, relaxing effect, or they are overexcited in which case overwhelming feelings of weed paranoia, depression, and anxiety can present themselves. Over-excitement is the more common response in new users. Unfortunately, we have yet to understand why this reaction occurs or how to predict or change how a user could potentially react to consuming THC.

The Endocannabinoid System

The human body contains an endocannabinoid system which consists of various receptor sites. Receptor sites are located throughout the entire body and are made up of cannabis cannabinoids. The receptors produce endocannabinoids which react with the brain similarly to cannabinoids produced by marijuana plants. The naturally produced chemicals help to control a person’s emotional controls. Most people who have a shortage of endocannabinoids will be more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.

Pre-existing mental health conditions can alter a user’s experience

Those who have been exposed to significant amounts of stress or trauma tend to produce fewer endocannabinoids which appear to show why cannabinoids such as THC can induce such relaxing therapeutic effects.  In 2009 a complete review of weed and anxiety studies showed that daily or long-term marijuana users have higher levels of anxiety than those who didn’t use cannabis. They also found that the majority of subjects they studied had been diagnosed with medical conditions such as anxiety or depression long before they began using marijuana. This leads researchers to assume that those who smoke cannabis likely do so to self-medicate rather than blaming weed for causing the conditions as initially believed.

Why does weed give me anxiety?

Anxiety itself tends to show itself in individuals who are already pre-dispositioned based on a specific list of risk factors including:

  • Gender
  • Genetics
  • Abstinence States
  • Family History of Paranoia
  • History of Paranoid Episodes in The Individual
  • Anxiety Levels
  • Current State of Anxiety

When weed and anxiety are mixed there are several other risk factors to consider including:

  • Dosing
  • Experience Using Cannabis
  • Cannabinoids Present
  • Environment

So far, we know that anxiety is different for every single person and that seasoned or experienced cannabis user’s, for the most part, show a decrease in feelings of fear, while those who were either new to using marijuana or those who don’t use often are much more likely to experience higher levels of paranoia. We also know that some of the adverse effects experienced by consuming THC can be heightened if higher doses of THC are used.

How to avoid weed paranoia

A good first step is understanding most of the behavioral and chemical changes that have been explained so far. The next step is setting some guidelines to set yourself up for the best experience.

1. Low doses
If you are new to using cannabis or had a bad experience in the past than you will likely have the best luck with small doses. Choose a strain that is lower in THC content and don’t smoke too much of it too quickly. Pace yourself so you can control how intense the experience gets. You can always smoke more, but once THC is ingested, there is no going back.

2. Try CBD instead
If THC is making you paranoid or uncomfortable, but you would still like to garner some relief for pain or other medical issues than CBD may be a better option for you. There are CBD pure strains that contain no psychoactive components and will not get you high. There are also strains that provide both THC and CBD which can produce a milder effect.

3. Start small
While smoking cannabis may not seem that appealing to everyone, it is the best way to first experiment with using THC. Smoking will deliver the THC to your bloodstream immediately and also wear off much faster. Marijuana-infused products like edibles or beverages will take longer to kick in which can create the illusion of everything being ok to consume more, but once the effects take hold, they can last for 12+ hours. The buzz from other methods of ingestion is often referred to as more intense which can be uncomfortable and even overwhelming for some.

4. Environment
Where you choose to get high can have a significant impact on your overall experience. Consuming cannabis in a high-stress situation where you are already nervous or anxious has the potential to make things worse. You are best to choose a space you feel safe to begin in the calmest state of mind.

5. Experiment
Every single strain of marijuana will produce slightly different effects than any other. This is due to the unique nature of each strains ability to create various chemicals such as THC. If you have had problems with weed and depression or anxiety than try a different kind. The only way to truly know how it will affect you is to smoke it, but in-depth research into personal reviews of strains can also help in finding a type that won’t produce any adverse effects when you ingest it.

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