Cannabis is well known for its relaxing, euphoric "high" that soothes stress and boosts mood. For some people, though, the opposite happens, and that aromatic joint or tasty edible triggers an episode of anxiety and paranoia. While the feeling may pass, it can be frightening and perplexing.
If you've ever wondered why marijuana has sent you reeling, we now have the answer! Recent research on the effects of cannabis on the brain reveals how and why THC, the mood-altering compound in cannabis, can cause deep relaxation as well as extreme anxiety and paranoia.
THC: The 'Feel Good' Cannabinoid also Causes Anxiety
The cannabis Sativa plant contains more than a hundred compounds that affect the human brain and body. Many of these compounds haven't been thoroughly studied, but considerable research has been devoted to understanding the effects of the most famous of them all: delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC.
THC is the most well-known cannabinoid and the only one capable of producing mood-altering, psychoactive effects. This is due to the way it interacts with a complex network of cell receptors in our body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The Biphasic Effect of Cannabis on the Body
Some medications have biphasic properties, which means that the effects at a low dose are the opposite of those at a high dose. THC is one of those substances which helps explain why cannabis can have relaxing, pleasant effects at a low or moderate dose, but at higher doses, THC can cause anxiety, and paranoia.
The good news; some of the unpleasant effects caused by too much THC can be mitigated by consuming cannabidiol (CBD). That said, you may still have to wait until the THC works through your system, which may be several hours. To avoid this, consuming cannabis strains that have a high percentage of CBD relative to THC can reduce the risk of anxiety or similar side effects.
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The Endocannabinoid System Controls Your Reaction to Cannabis
The human body contains a little-known, but essential system of cell receptors called the endocannabinoid system. The ECS is a critical key to maintaining balance among your body's many subsystems. The ECS receptors respond to cannabinoid compounds produced by the body and those from outside sources, mainly the cannabis plant. Science has identified two main receptor types, CB1 and CB2, found in tissues throughout the body.
The brain is rich in cannabinoid receptors, especially CB1, the receptor directly activated by THC. Many CB1 receptors are located in areas of the brain related to pleasure and reward. In these areas, THC appears to support the expression of "feel good" chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, which inhibit negative responses like anxiety and fear. That makes it possible for people to feel relaxed, euphoric, and even sleepy when they use cannabis.
But not all brains are the same, and recent research indicates that a person's response to cannabis depends on the number of endocannabinoid receptors they have, and where those receptors are located in the brain.
The brain's frontal, or anterior, areas contain structures related to mood, cognition, and decision-making – "executive functions" that help people manage complex tasks and coordinate movement. But the posterior area of the brain is home to the amygdala and limbic system, which regulate responses such as fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions.
When a person has more cannabinoid receptors in the anterior structures of the brain, they're more likely to get the expected, pleasant "high" from cannabis. But suppose a majority of the brain's cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in the amygdala and other posterior regions. In that case, the THC in cannabis can ramp up activity in those areas, causing anxiety, paranoia, and even psychosis.
Your Predisposition Plays a Role to Your Reaction to Marijuana
The new research on the natural distribution of cannabinoid receptors in the brain indicates how genetics play a significant role in determining how cannabis may affect you. Studies found THC-rich cannabis is more likely to trigger an adverse reaction in people with certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorder or schizophrenia.
Cannabis is More Potent than Your Parent's Weed
Another reason cannabis can cause anxiety and paranoia is that today's cannabis strains contain stratospheric levels of THC. Although this may increase the appeal for people seeking a potent high, cannabis products with high doses of THC can also raise the risk of negative reactions. In the 1970s a typical joint might contain 6% THC, whereas today, an average joint may start at 18% THC - that's a big difference! The weed your parents smoked was way less potent than today's weed.
Dealing With Anxiety and Paranoia Caused by too Much THC
If you're completely new to cannabis, there's no way to predict how it might affect you. And even if you're a seasoned consumer, it's possible to have a bad experience. But cannabis experts point out that there's a lot you can do to help yourself get through a difficult trip.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Take CBD which will help take the edge off
- Stay in comfortable, familiar surroundings and find some calming activities
- Take deep breaths and remember this won't last for long
- Put on some quiet music, or chat with a friend
It's important to remember that the anxiety and distress caused by cannabis isn't life-threatening, and will pass as the chemical leaves the body.
Cannabis can be the perfect companion for chilling at home or a gathering with friends, but the factors contributing to that pleasant high can also trigger unpleasant feelings. Knowing why that happens and what to do about it can help make your cannabis experience the best it can be.