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How to Handle a Cannabis-Induced Panic Attack

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Cannabis doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, and even if you’re a seasoned consumer, you might not have the same reaction every time you use it.

Sometimes it might work exactly as you intended, whether you’re using it to ease mental health symptoms or stimulate your appetite. But other times, it may increase feelings of stress and anxiety, especially if you’re using a product high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

Cannabis-induced anxiety might show up as a panic attack in some cases, which can result in:

  • sweating or shaking
  • a sudden feeling of doom you can’t explain
  • worries about others watching or judging you
  • racing heartbeat
  • trouble breathing
  • intense feelings of fear
  • chest pain or choking sensations
  • stomach pain or nausea
  • dizziness
  • numbness, tingling, or chills
  • a sense of detachment from reality or your body

It’s also common to worry about dying or losing control. Though these feelings can be frightening, they’re pretty normal with panic attacks.

The good news is, panic attacks don’t pose any significant danger. They also go away on their own, usually within 10 minutes or so. Of course, those 10 minutes might feel like an eternity when panic has you in its grip.

Here are some ways to find relief in the meantime.

Panic attacks can feel different for everyone, but it’s not unusual to wonder if you’re experiencing something serious, such as a heart attack or overdose, especially if you’ve never had a panic attack before.

The fear that happens with a panic attack is perfectly real. The threat, however, isn’t, and reminding yourself that the panic will pass can help you start to calm down.

You might certainly experience some unpleasant symptoms after ingesting too much cannabis, but this scenario isn’t life threatening (even if it feels that way).

Calming exercise

  • Sit down somewhere comfortable — the sofa, the floor, your favorite chair.
  • Close your eyes and take a deep breath.
  • Say, “I’m safe. I’m having a panic attack. I’ll feel better soon.”
  • Repeat this mantra, breathing slowly and naturally, until the feelings of panic begin to life.

Using cannabis on an empty stomach can intensify the effects of THC, leading to a more serious high than you expected.

There’s an easy fix, though: Grab a snack. Even if you weren’t all that hungry to begin with, a light meal can help counteract the effects of cannabis and soothe the panic.

Some evidence also suggests terpenes like limonene, found in lemons, can help ease the effects of THC. So if you have lemons on hand, zest and squeeze one into a glass of water. Add sugar or honey if you’re not a fan of the sour pucker.

If you don’t have lemons, check your cabinets. Another common source of terpenes is black pepper.

If you have whole peppercorns, chew on a couple. If you have a pepper shaker on hand, give it a careful whiff. Just make sure you don’t actually inhale it, as that will create an entirely different set of unwanted symptoms.

Hyperventilation, or very rapid breathing, often happens during a panic attack.

Breathing too quickly can prevent you from getting enough carbon dioxide, which can cause tingling in your extremities and make you feel dizzy or faint. These symptoms can alarm you and end up making the panic attack worse.

Slowing down your breathing can sometimes help you begin feeling better right away. If you have a go-to technique, it can’t hurt to give it a try.

If not, try the breathing exercises below to help yourself relax.

Simple deep breathing exercise

You’ll breathe with your mouth for this technique:

  • Get comfortable. It may help to sit or stand with your back against something supportive.
  • Slowly inhale for 3 to 4 seconds, paying attention to the sensation of your breath filling your lungs. Some people find it helpful to place a hand on their stomach and feel it expand with each breath.
  • Hold the breath for a second or two.
  • Slowly exhale for 3 to 4 seconds.
  • Continue until the lightheaded feeling passes and you can breathe more naturally on your own.

Alternate nostril breathing

This technique uses your nose, so you’ll want to keep your mouth closed:

  • Close one nostril.
  • Breathe in slowly through the other nostril for 2 to 4 seconds.
  • Hold that breath for 1 to 2 seconds, then slowly exhale. Do this twice.
  • Close the other nostril and repeat the process.
  • Continue switching sides and breathing through one nostril at a time until your breathing slows and you feel calmer.

OK, so you’re pretty sure you’re having a panic attack, but that knowledge doesn’t calm you down automatically. Your thoughts are spinning, your heart is racing, and you can’t catch your breath. You know you’re not dying, but you still feel awful.

While it’s sometimes a little challenging to stay present through overwhelming anxiety and panic, grounding techniques can help you step back from waves of fear and anchor yourself.

Here are a few exercises to get you started:

  • Run your hands under cold or warm water.
  • Touch or pick up the first three objects you see, one at a time. Your favorite blanket, a book, the TV remote — anything works. Run your fingers over the contours of the object and focus on its colors and sensations. Even simply holding something can offer a point of connection with reality.
  • Cuddle or stroke your pet.
  • Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to identify and list things around you: five sounds, four textures, three visible objects, two different scents, and one taste.

Cannabis is usually linked to feelings of relaxation, and things can sometimes backfire for a range of reasons. Here’s how to deal.

Cannabis-Induced Anxiety Attacks

Home / Blog / Cannabis-Induced Anxiety Attacks

Cannabis-Induced Anxiety Attacks

Posted by Marijuana Doctors on 11/20/2018 in Medical Marijuana

Updated on August 26, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

Anxiety is a well-known side effect of marijuana medicine. Some detractors even mention it to try to delegitimize cannabis’ overall safety and medical benefits. Cannabis can cause anxiety and panic attacks, but it works just like any medication’s side effect. When you take your medicine the way your doctor recommends, you can reduce or eliminate any anxiety symptoms. Let’s talk about the facts surrounding cannabis and anxiety attacks.

Why Does Marijuana Make Some People Anxious?

Marijuana consists of multiple compounds called cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid, makes you high when you use cannabis because it attaches to receptors in your brain. However, this phenomenon can also cause the THC to affect your amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear, stress and other emotions.

When the amygdala is overstimulated, it makes you feel paranoid, anxious and scared. This effect on your brain does not cause harm, but it can certainly feel unpleasant.

Certain risk factors increase a patient’s chance of feeling anxious when they take medical cannabis, like:

  • Tolerance: Everyone reacts to THC differently. The same amount could cause a severe panic attack in one person while another person barely notices it. Your body gets more used to THC as you take it.
  • Administration: The way you take your medicine impacts how quickly it takes effect. Edibles are notorious for side effects because you can underestimate how long it takes for them to kick in. Many new users accidentally take too much and experience intense effects.
  • Amount of THC: Higher doses of THC have a bigger risk of overstimulating your amygdala.
  • Other Sources of Anxiety: If something else is making you feel anxious, THC could make it worse. For example, you might have an existing anxiety disorder or feel nervous about taking your medicine in a new setting.

Doesn’t Cannabis Reduce Anxiety?

If you like to follow our content, you may know we often talk about marijuana’s anxiety-relieving benefits. So, why do we also mention that it can cause panic attacks? The answer lies in marijuana’s nature as a medicine. Many prescription medications have just one or two compounds in them. Meanwhile, cannabis has more than 85 cannabinoids, in addition to other components. Instead of working like a single medicine, marijuana acts like an entire medicine cabinet full of remedies. That’s why it can relieve so many conditions!

But, just like your medicine cabinet, every component in cannabis has its own benefits and side effects. THC can cause anxiety in some people, especially when they take it in large amounts. Imagine taking your pills for the day and having too much of a medication that can make you anxious. Sometimes, a patient takes medicine with too much THC in it, and it causes a feeling of panic. In this scenario, they need to try another kind of marijuana medication.

What Does a Cannabis-Related Anxiety Attack Look Like?

The symptoms of a cannabis-induced panic attack vary from person to person, but they can include:

  • Increased heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy or weak
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sweating or chills
  • A feeling of doom and unease

If you already know what happens during a regular panic attack, a cannabis-induced anxiety attack has the same symptoms. Sometimes it causes mild problems, while in other cases the patient can feel like they will die.

In most cases, a panic attack will cause no danger to the person experiencing it. However, if you have a history of heart or lung problems, you may want to get medical attention. Your symptoms could indicate another problem.

How Should a Patient Handle Marijuana-Induced Anxiety?

Marijuana-related anxiety often happens because the patient took too much THC for their tolerance. To relieve the stress, you need to let the THC metabolize and calm down as best you can. You may feel like you need to go to the ER because you have a heart attack or breathing issue. But, unless you have existing problems, you don’t need medical help.

Try these strategies if you start to panic after medicating:

  • Relax: If you have a go-to way to relax, do that activity. You can also lie down for a bit, watch your favorite movie or take a bath.
  • Distract Your Mind: Take your mind off your anxiety while your body processes the THC. Distract yourself by taking a walk or talking to a friend.
  • Breathe: Focus on breathing in and out slowly, especially if the panic attack causes you to breathe too quickly. You will find your mind clearing up in no time.

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Getting a Cannabis-Related Panic Attack?

If you get an anxiety attack after taking marijuana medicine, you don’t have to stop taking it for good. Instead, you just need to change the way you medicate. These approaches can help:

  • Take a Lower Dose: In some cases, a smaller amount of THC will provide relief with little to no psychoactive side effects. Only take a little THC at a time and listen to your doctor’s recommendations. You can always take another small dose if you don’t feel enough of an effect.
  • Use a Different Strain: Some varieties of the marijuana plant cause a stronger high than others. Ask your budtender about strains and products that have fewer psychoactive effects.
  • Increase Your CBD Dosage: Cannabidiol (CBD), the other main cannabinoid in marijuana, counteracts THC’s effects. Look for medicine that balances THC out with CBD. As a bonus, you get to benefit from CBD’s symptom relief and the positive effects of THC.

Who Can Help Me Minimize the Risk of Panic Attacks?

Professionals in the medical marijuana industry understand how THC interacts with your body. If you have a sensitivity to THC or want advice, we recommend getting their help. Even in states with legal recreational marijuana, cannabis-positive doctors can help you plan your treatment. Also, the staff members at medical dispensaries are excellent and helping patients find a treatment that works for them. Feel free to use our resources to find the perfect solution for your treatment plan.

While Cannabis can be a useful tool to alleviate anxiety, it also can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety particularly in patients prone to anxiety attacks.