Using Marijuana for Treating Anxiety
Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.
Verywell / Cindy Chung
As more states legalize marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use, more and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although scientific research in this area is still sparse, there are anecdotal and new scientific reports of marijuana creating a calming experience that temporarily relieves symptoms of anxiety for many people.
Marijuana as Self-Medication
Anytime you take it upon yourself to use a substance to treat or cope with a medical problem or symptom, it is referred to as self-medicating. Often, self-medicating produces an immediate relief of the uncomfortable symptoms, thereby reinforcing its use.
The problem with self-medication is that even though the use of marijuana is becoming more acceptable, not enough is known about the efficacy of the drug for particular medical conditions as well as its long-term consequences.
Potential Benefits and Risks
May reduce depression in the short term
May relieve anxiety temporarily
May reduce stress
Higher levels of psychiatric disorders
Can create psychological dependence
Long-term memory loss may occur
Symptoms may increase
May develop cannabis hyperemesis syndrome
Can create increased tolerance and need
The scientific community has recently started examining the effect of cannabis on anxiety, and the verdict is that short-term benefits do exist.
Scientists at Washington State University published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in the short term. However, repeated use doesn’t seem to lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms and in some individuals may increase depression over time.
Marijuana can affect your body in many ways beyond just getting you high. The high feeling you may experience after smoking or ingesting marijuana is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.
The effects of THC do not come without risks, and long-term or frequent use has been associated several potential side effects.
Higher Levels of Psychiatric Disorders
It is possible that people who use marijuana for an extended period of time have higher levels and symptoms of depression, despite any improvements they may have seen in this regard with short-term use.
Some research has also shown that heavy use of marijuana in adolescence (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of depression and anxiety later on in a person’s life. Certain susceptible individuals are also at risk for the development of psychosis with the use of cannabis.
The central problem with using marijuana as an anxiety coping tool is that it can create a psychological dependence on the substance.
Since the effects of marijuana are fast acting, long-term behavior-based coping strategies may seem less helpful at first and may be less likely to be developed.
Long-Term Memory Loss
Several studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because THC alters one of the areas of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation. It also can have negative consequences on the brain’s motivation system.
Increase in Symptoms
THC can raise your heart rate, which, if you have anxiety, may make you feel even more anxious. Using too much marijuana can also make you feel scared or paranoid.
In some cases, marijuana can also induce orthostatic hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure when standing, which can cause lightheadedness or feeling faint. Cannabis can also cause feelings of dizziness, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision, which can contribute to anxiety.
Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome
A rare consequence of frequent marijuana use, particularly with today’s more potent strains, is cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This involves cyclical nausea and vomiting.
This is paradoxical and can be difficult to diagnose, as marijuana has been used to decrease nausea and vomiting in cancer treatment. Sufferers sometimes find relief in hot baths and showers, but ultimately, abstinence from marijuana is necessary for long-term improvement.
You can develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means that the more you use it, the more you will eventually need to get the same “high” as earlier experiences.
Alternatives to Marijuana
Remember that some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful when you are confronted with something that feels threatening to you. However, when feeling anxious becomes pervasive and difficult to control, it is time to seek professional help to discuss other forms of anxiety management.
Proactive coping strategies, learned through counseling, support groups, as well as self-help books and educational websites, can create lasting change without the negative components of extended marijuana use.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy can help you determine the underlying cause of your anxiety and manage it more effectively. Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
Working with a psychotherapist to manage your anxiety will give you a better handle on your condition in the long run.
The use of certain prescription medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been firmly established as safe and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Prescription medication is also preferable to marijuana since the long-term risks have been better studied and are potentially less significant compared to long-term marijuana use. Some anti-anxiety medications are taken daily, while others are taken episodically during periods of extreme anxiety or a panic attack.
A psychiatrist or your primary care doctor can prescribe you an anti-anxiety medication, should you need one.
Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
CBD oil, a marijuana extract that is often dispersed under the tongue with a dropper, doesn’t contain THC, so it won’t give you the same mind-altering effects as marijuana. There is some beginning evidence to suggest that CBD could be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and addiction, but more clinical trials and research are needed in this area.
A Word From Verywell
Symptoms of anxiety are treatable. Studies show that psychotherapy and medication are effective for most individuals, whereas the long-term effects of self-medicating with marijuana have yet to be clearly established. If you’ve recently started experimenting with marijuana use to treat your anxiety, be sure to tell your doctor.
If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Using marijuana can provide short-term symptom relief for anxiety, but there are risks to consider. Learn more about this and longer-term options.
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).
Why is cannabis a miracle cure for some people’s anxiety — and totally anxiety-inducing for others? A cannabis educator shares everything you need to know, plus tips for how to make sure your next experience with weed leaves you chill to the max and not on the verge of panic.