Let’s Talk About Cannabis and Anxiety

Deb Tharp | May 31, 2018 | Leave a Comment


Ever had a “bad trip” on cannabis? Perhaps you smoked too much or tried edibles for the first time and weren’t prepared for the effects? It’s well known that overly-strong cannabis doses can cause panic and anxiety. So people often scratch their heads and laugh when they find out doctors recommend cannabis to treat anxiety disorder. But doesn’t it cause anxiety in the first place?


It might be a cliched notion, but when confronted with two completely opposite points of view, the truth is almost always somewhere in between. When faced with one extreme accusing cannabis of causing psychosis, and another proclaiming it’s a remedy, it’s wise to take both points of view with a grain of salt.  


Cannabis and anxiety is a complex topic that’s only beginning to move to the forefront of the legalization conversation. And, believe it or not, many cannabis users experience remarkable relief from anxiety disorders with cannabis. So how is this possible? Can cannabis really help treat an anxiety disorder? We’re only now beginning to see studies that show the cannabinoids’ true roles in our stress patterns and physiology.



What Is Anxiety?


Anxiety is a normal response to stress. Literally, everyone experiences it from time to time. But sometimes anxiety becomes an ugly monster that takes over life. At this point, you might be diagnosed with one of the many different types of clinical anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)  
  • Panic disorder
  • Panic attacks
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Selective mutism
  • Separation anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


That’s a lot of syllables and categories that don’t really tell us much about what anxiety is, or its physical causes.


I Thought Anxiety Was All in My Head?


Wrong. Anxiety is a physiological reaction to stress. Like all physiological reactions, it can be well-adapted to external circumstances or dysfunctionally adapted. When the reaction to stress is dysfunctional, a cascade of hormones are released into the body to wreak their havoc – and the aftermath ain’t pretty. The physical symptoms are:

  • Increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Choking sensation
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Pain in your chest
  • Feeling hot or cold
  • Goosebumps
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Nausea
  • Intestinal cramps
  • Fear of losing control, dying or a sudden sense of detachment from reality


You can have one or all of these symptoms, which can vary widely. But all of them have one thing in common – they’re normal reactions to increased stress hormones.


It’s Just the Way We Work


There’s an evolutionary basis for these physical symptoms when exposed to stress. The most basic benefit? These physical reactions are intensely unpleasant, encouraging us to exit stressful situations that cause these symptoms. Even better, these unpleasant hormones give us the energy we need to escape a bad situation fast, increasing our chances of survival. Consider the following scenario:


You dip your toe into a South American lake. It looks like a pleasant place for a swim. The water’s wonderful and relaxing, so you wade a little further in. Suddenly, you see it frothing as a bird flails to escape. A pool of blood mixes with the frothy water and you realize you’ve stepped into piranha territory.


Would it be evolutionarily expedient to stay in the water? How about moseying out slowly as the school of killer fish rapidly descends on you for dessert? Of course not!


Stress Is an Important Survival Tool


The best survival reaction would be to run away from that lake so fast that you appaer to levitate. This is where anxiety comes in. It releases stress hormones that prepare your body for the intense burst of physical activity you need to survive, better known as “fight or flight.”


This reaction is real, and it has a powerful effect on the human body. In fact, the physical effects can be so powerful that they can provide seemingly superhuman strength. These are the hormones that allow a 280lb man to lift a 3,000lb car off an accident victim. Or they might give a mother the strength to run into a burning building to rescue her child. If these hormones can do all this, they aren’t all bad, and they most definitely aren’t all in your head.


Wearing Out the Button


But what if these hormones are always being activated without the accompanying explosion of activity? Consider, if you will, another scenario:


You’re in L.A. on the 405 at 11pm. You check your mirrors, signal, and switch lanes to exit. Suddenly you see a red Corvette screaming toward you at half the speed of light.  


The same physiological response that saved your ancient ancestors from saber tooth tigers just allowed you to jerk your car back into the previous lane in time to avoid becoming protoplasm on the side of the road.


All That Adrenaline and Nowhere to Go


So, was the situation with the red corvette any less life-threatening than the piranhas? Heck no! The exact same stress response saved you twice. However, in the case of the piranhas, you just levitated through water at breakneck speed (not easy to do). In the case of the nut behind the wheel, you’re still sitting on your keister, likely suffering from heart palpitations and homicidal rage. What are you supposed to do with all that extra blood sugar and adrenaline?


Depending on your current lifestyle and occupation, you could find yourself facing this type of fight or flight response several times a day. Any normal person who experiences this hormone response while forced to be immobile or calm will have a negative reaction (think of an encounter with an aggressive customer who might be threatening your life). These hormones aren’t meant to be circulating in great amounts while sitting still.


So, there’s NOTHING to be embarrassed about if you suffer from anxiety. Almost everyone has experienced this phenomenon. And the ones that don’t probably actually do and just don’t know it.


Your body is built to work this way. It’s the world that’s poorly adapted to our biology and changing so fast it’s hard to keep up on an evolutionary scale. Perhaps, centuries from now, our physiological responses will evolve to adapt more appropriately to these stressful situations that require small movements and calm. We might even call it the “react and relax” response.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World


Meanwhile, we need to deal with the here and now. The world is nuts and it’s actually a testament to humanity’s resilience that we can survive here at all. Just because anxiety might become a diagnosed mental illness doesn’t mean it’s your fault, it’s all in your head, or a weakness. Just the opposite.


The world we live in today is every bit as tough and stressful as it was when our ancestors lived here. We’re dealing with biological responses that are very poorly adapted to the stressful situations we regularly deal with. So, how do we cope?


The Medical Approach


Doctors have lots of handy little pills. They’ve got ones that make you larger, some that make you small, and others that mom gave you that don’t seem to do anything at all.


Fortunately, some people really do benefit from medicines that help regulate our stress responses. Unfortunately, many others have a hard time getting past the unpleasant side effects. These can include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors: weight gain, insomnia and sexual problems.
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors: high blood pressure, nausea, headaches and trouble sleeping.
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants: low blood pressure, blurry vision, dry mouth and constipation.
  • Benzodiazepines: addiction and risk of overdose.


If you have trouble dealing with these side effects (it’s hard to believe some people don’t), don’t despair. There are other natural ways to combat the stress caused by our unnatural world.


Cognitive Behavior Therapy


Think of this as a way to rewire the brain – perhaps even give you a little adaptive evolutionary kick start. Basically, it involves teaching your brain entirely new thought patterns. For an oversimplified example, we can revisit our homicidal Corvette. Was he/she really trying to kill you, or just trying to get somewhere fast?


We tend to think in a reactionary way to situations that causes a feedback loop and increases our anger and stress hormones. We might think, “that (insert expletive) tried to kill me!” This doesn’t help. It’s also probably not true. Instead, you’d replace the defensive thought with, “I’m in control of my car and forgive this person for their careless act.”


This is a lot harder than it sounds. It requires an almost superhuman effort of self-control since we aren’t built to think that way. It’s also very worthwhile and life-affirming for many who find it improves other areas of life as they learn. Want to learn more about this proven therapeutic tool? Check out this page.




This is another acquired skill that can help to reduce stress hormones and repair stress-induced damage. The best part about meditation is it can be used as long as time and circumstances allow. Learn more about meditation and its benefits here.


Physical Activity


Considering the root of the problem, fight or flight without the release of either, increasing physical activity, and sweating, as often as possible can help. This will help to use all of the extra glucose and adrenaline released into our systems.


There are many ways to do this, but if it’s possible to time physical activity closely with stressful situations, you might experience more relief. For instance, if you have a fight with a loved one, you can take a walk around the block to “cool off.”


Where Does Cannabis Fit In?


Many people use cannabis to treat stress and anxiety, and use it very effectively. This is confusing to some scientists that don’t approach medicine in a functional way. It’s well-known that THC can sometimes give you the heebie-jeebies. So it doesn’t seem like cannabis is the ideal herb for anxiety of any kind.


But THC isn’t the only compound in cannabis; and unlike the controlled environments in research studies, it’s usually taken with many other cannabinoids at the same time. Just like many medications produced by big pharma, THC alone can produce a very different effect than the whole plant from which it’s derived.


Dose and Ratio Matter


Cannabis is one of those herbs that can have opposite effects at different doses, and at different mixtures. Taking a little may make a person relaxed and happy while taking a lot can push a novice to borderline psychosis.  


Some of the compounds in cannabis elevate anxiety, while others cause relaxation. The overall effect that a cannabis product has on you will depend on the ratio of each compound present, and your own physiological reactions. Discover more about them here.


Bottom line: you’ll never know how a new strain or cannabis product will affect you until you try it. That’s why it’s so important to start small and work your dosage up if you’re among the majority who suffers from a little occasional anxiety. It may be tempting to overdo your cannabis dosage since it won’t kill you, but the difference between a great day and a horrific afternoon can a few milligrams of THC.


How Do I Find the Best Cannabis for My Needs?


That’s a very good question with an answer about as clear as mud. Clinical studies can provide a general idea of how compounds work on most, but not how they work on everyone. Clinical studies on single compounds won’t tell us what happens when they’re combined with others, either. And when the compounds are as magical and dynamic as they are in cannabis, experimental results can be positively confounding.


Studies have shown that CBD acts as an antagonist to THC in CB1 receptors (the receptors that make us feel high). But a few others show less of this effect with CBD than previously thought. What’s more likely is that scientists have failed to take into account each person’s unique chemistry. The general consensus is that CBD does help with relaxation and perception of a more mellow high, and our fellow canna-connoisseurs tend to agree.


So a good start would be finding a strain with some CBD as well as THC. You might want a 50/50 mix if you don’t want to feel much from the THC, or go with a lower CBD:THC ratio if you’re open to a little couch lock for the day. But this still leaves a lot of room for experimentation.


Getting High Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum


Budtenders and enthusiasts everywhere generally agree that sativa provides a more cerebral high while indica gives us couch lock and munchies. This statement is as credible as an old wives’ tale. The truth is even more convoluted than our most experienced cannabis scientists will admit.


We see studies that test how disconnected neurotransmitters absorb compounds in a Petri dish and show cannabinoids’ effects on rats and mice. We even see studies assessing whether administering Marinol can reduce cannabis self-administration in “cannabis dependent” individuals like methadone for “cannabis addicts.” (It’s okay to laugh at the silliness of this concept.)


Remember, anyone can submit a scientific study to the community – even a paranoid Reagan-era mad scientist who thinks any pill is good idea if it’s got “Lilly” or “Abbott” stamped on it. Heaven forbid you take the actual substance in its natural form.


Each one of these studies fails to take into account the most important variable – us! None of these chemical reactions takes place in a vacuum. They take place in our bodies where receptors are affected by what we eat, what we’re doing at the time, and how much dopamine and serotonin we already have in our systems – even what we were thinking about five minutes ago.


How in the world would it be possible to completely narrow down the effects of a strain or specific compound in the midst of such chaos?


Why Not Try Your Own Scientific Approach?


The best way to figure out the right regimen for your personal well-being is to try several different types, strains, ratios and administration methods and keep track of how they make you feel. There’s something to be said for applying the scientific method to our own health and wellness routines. After all, even scientists have to admit that what works on a lab rat may have absolutely no bearing on humans.


Even if you’re an extremely experienced user, you can benefit from this method. We often fall into certain habits or a rut with our medicine and lose great opportunities to improve results.


Here are some questions to consider while experimenting. Does edible CBD have a more relaxing effect than smoked or vaped CBD? Does the ratio of CBD to THC affect your high? Do the other cannabinoids present, like terpenes, affect your overall feel? Prefer natural terpenes to artificial flavors? Edibles, inhalation, or both? Do you like to titrate your doses in tiny amounts or take larger doses one to three times daily?


If you have questions or are unsure where to start, Nugg’s Cannabis Concierge service is here for you. Our team of experts will listen to your needs and concerns, and offer the most up-to-date product and industry info to make sure you have the best possible cannabis experience.

About Deb Tharp

Deb Tharp is a cannabis activist, consultant, and writer. She began her cannabis activism at the age of 18, helping local candidates campaign door-to-door in the Midwest. Little did she know that the plant would save her husband's life a decade later. After watching him recover 60 pounds to his skeletal frame in a matter of months, she was convinced that the war on weed must end. She ran for State Assembly in 2010 while completing her bachelor's degree at University of California, Irvine. During her campaign, she managed to bring cannabis legalization to the forefront of the debate. Little more than a year later, she was publicly arrested while gathering signatures for a cannabis ballot initiative in Orange County. She fired back at the county by qualifying Measure CC in Santa Ana under Kandice Hawes' of OC Norml’s expert leadership. In the following years, she authored, qualified and helped to qualify over a dozen local legalization ballot initiatives across the state while teaching other activists how to do the same. She currently writes for Nugg, the nation's largest online cannabis marketplace, while pursuing her law degree at Taft Law School and will graduate in 2021.

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