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It’s true. Anxiety and paranoia are two classic side effects of cannabis. But, if the herb can make people so uncomfortable, why does it help anxiety? As it turns out, this psychoactive flower can both trigger and calm anxiety. Yet, the overall effects of the herb all depend on the strain, dose, and your individual body chemistry.

Does cannabis worsen anxiety?

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The cannabis plant contains at least 400 different chemical compounds. Some of these compounds are cannabinoids, chemicals produced by the plant that engage with the human body. The most famous cannabinoid is psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

THC is psychoactive because it directly activates special cell receptors that are most abundant in the brain. Specifically, it engages the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is a large regulatory network in the body that manages mood, cognition, movement, memory, immune function, metabolism, sleep, and reproduction.

When you consume cannabis, THC and other cannabinoids interact with areas of the brain that are responsible for fear and mood regulation. Specifically, it engages cell receptors in the amygdala. The amygdala is an area deep in the brain that controls emotions, survival instinct, and memory.

When THC connects with this area, it can cause the famous cannabis paranoia that is often joked about in mainstream media. However, there are a few caveats to this. Whether or not a person experiences cannabis-induced paranoia is highly circumstantial.

Cannabis, paranoia, and environment

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Not everyone experiences cannabis-induced paranoia. In those who do experience paranoia, many do not have this reaction each time they consume. Rather, both external and internal factors determine who will likely have a paranoid reaction after a little THC. Here are four things to note:

1. Environment

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If you are uncomfortable in your environment, adding cannabis may make things worse. As mentioned above, the amygdala is a brain system that helps control the survival instinct, also known as the fight or flight response. If you are in an uncomfortable, new, or unusual environment, your body is more likely to be hyper aware of your surroundings.

Cannabis can exaggerate this awareness. Nervous about walking by a police officer or looking too high in public? These nervous tendencies can be amplified by THC. This is especially true with new consumers who do not have tolerance or familiarity with what to expect after consuming cannabis.

2. Genetics

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As it turns out, your likelihood of experiencing extreme anxiety and paranoia with cannabis may be partly genetic.

A recent study [2016] found that those with the AKT1 gene variant may have an increased risk for anxiety and psychotic symptoms with cannabis. Those with this gene variation are more likely to experience visual distortions, hallucinations, and paranoia while high.

3. Strain

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Different cannabis strains are also more likely to cause paranoia than others. Generally speaking, cannabis sativa strains are more likely to cause anxiety and paranoia than cannabis indica strains. Cannabis sativa strains produce more of an energizing mental experience than indica strains. Pure sativa strains can cause feelings of raciness and anxiety.

Indica strains, on the other hand, produce a strong physical relaxation. The effects of indica strains are felt more in the body than the mind. Many medical cannabis patients find relief from anxiety with indicas or indica hybrids.

However, any high-THC cannabis strain is more likely to trigger anxiety and paranoia than different types of cannabis. Herb high in nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) is an alternative to THC that does not affect cognition and is not associated with the anxious paranoia sometimes caused by THC. In fact, research shows that CBD has very powerful anti-anxiety properties.

Searching for information on cannabis strains? Take a look at our strain database here.

4. Dose

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As many experienced cannabis enthusiasts can attest, smoking or eating a little too much herb can trigger paranoia. High doses of THC can cause paranoia even in those who don’t typically experience that sort of thing. This is because THC is flooding the brain, temporarily triggering the organ’s fear processing center.

Why do people use cannabis for anxiety?

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The same reasons why cannabis may cause paranoia are the same reasons why the herb may help those with anxiety. Studies have shown that low doses of synthetic cannabinoids modeled after THC are potent anxiolytics.

Yet, in high doses, they can produce the opposite effect, producing anxiety. While much more research is needed, low-dose THC may prove to be a potent anti-anxiety medication.

Those just starting out with cannabis may find the herb to be anxiety provoking at first. Yet, tolerance to THC is another way the herb may help ease anxiety. An increased tolerance may help long-term cannabis patients handle strains with high THC levels.

Further, a 2009 review has found that cannabis users are more likely to have developed an anxiety disorder prior to using the herb. In general, herb-lovers show higher rates of anxiety than the general population.

However, the study found that anxious tendencies preceded cannabis use. This is an opposing argument to the idea that cannabis causes anxiety disorders.

Another small study (10 participants) published in 2011 found that CBD treatment significantly reduced subjective anxiety in patients with social anxiety.

Using neuroimaging, the researchers found that CBD treatment altered brain activity in the limbic and paralimbic systems, brain regions responsible for emotion processing among other things.

These results suggest that CBD is an effective anxiolytic in social anxiety.

Why does cannabis help anxiety?

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So, yes. Cannabis can trigger anxiety in some cases. But, the same mechanisms that cause paranoia may also play a part in calming nervousness in those with anxiety and stress disorders.

Plus, all cannabis strains provide different effects. This makes cannabis medicines highly customizable for each individual.

Some experienced consumers may find that high-THC strains work well for anxiety relief. Others cannot tolerate THC at all and prefer high-CBD strains. Smoking or eating too much cannabis can also trigger anxiety, while low-doses are thought to encourage calm relaxation.

Overall, many who struggle with anxiety turn to cannabis for relief. Yet, the herb can both cause and reduce anxiety depending on the circumstances.

As with all medicines, finding the most effective cannabis treatment is a highly individual process. Always work with a doctor to find the best treatment given your unique requirements.

Searching for ways to calm cannabis-induced anxiety? Check out this article here.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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