Five Ways to Prevent an Anxious High
Alone in my bedroom well past midnight, I began to wonder if that pot brownie I devoured earlier was laced with shrooms. With every twist and turn of the kaleidoscopic patterns forming before my eyes, my heart pounded even harder. “Wait, is the weed giving me a heart attack?” I worried. (I called my medical marijuana doctor the next day to ask if such a thing were possible. It’s not.)
Surely there couldn’t have been shrooms in the brownie—it came from a medical marijuana dispensary. But nonetheless, I was freaking out, and even worse, I was ashamed of the way I was feeling—why couldn’t I just get high and be chill?
I’ve had my ups and downs with weed for the now ten years it’s been part of my life, though I’ve always been a moderate consumer. Still, the journey through and past my weed anxiety has been a pursuit in self-knowledge and a rewarding path to becoming more grounded.
“As a society, there’s this stigma that anxiety is negative. Before we normalize cannabis, we have to normalize anxiety,” says Jessica Assaf, founder of Cannabis Feminist, a community that empowers women who use both recreational and medical marijuana. “Often, we are ashamed of the anxiety, and that is more dangerous than the anxiety itself.”
She also asserts that getting high is also about relinquishing control. “It’s ultimately recognizing that you have to let go and let the plant do the healing,” Assaf says. “If you go back to the facts and the science, it can be very reassuring: We all have an endocannabinoid system with receptors that exist to bind perfectly to the compounds in the plant.” Here’s some advice from a few experts on how to get your body and mind on the same page when trying to kick back and enjoy a high that actually feels like one.
Cannabis has a biphasic effect, meaning that a low dose can have the opposite effect of a high dose. Half a brownie could have you feeling euphoric, while the whole brownie will have you freaking out. The professionals I spoke with all recommended “start low and go slow.” Wait about ten minutes between hits, or—as Julie Holland, New York-based psychiatrist and author of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis recommends—wait about two hours between edible doses to know a product’s effect before having more.
As I learned the hard way, THC—the main psychoactive compound in cannabis—is likely to feel more psychedelic when you digest it. That’s because your liver turns it into 11-Hydroxy-THC, an active metabolite, which is more psychedelic and lasts longer than regular THC, explains Holland.
Mind your surroundings.
Remember “set and setting,” cautions California-based psychotherapist Ron Alexander, a clinical trainer in the field of mindfulness meditation. “Most people who have a predisposition to social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and/or panic attack should use cannabis at home where they can create a quiet and relaxing atmosphere,” he says. “As the cannabis effect is coming on—for example after ingesting an edible—do some yoga and stretching, meditate, write in a journal, or look at beautiful art books and magazines.”
Advice from someone who's had her share of anxiety from smoking weed.
Marijuana anxiety? Here’s what to do if you have a panic attack while high
While many find weed a relaxing drug, marijuanaВ alsoВ has a direct connectionВ to panic attacks. Even aВ habitual smoker who seems the very definition of “chill” has likely had the experienceВ of being way too high, man. В
In the moment, that can be overwhelming. But it’sВ not the end of the world. Here’s what you need to know aboutВ theВ scary, stressfulВ and sometimes overwhelming problemВ of weed-induced panic.
Can weed causeВ panic attacks?
“It can,” said Ryan Vandrey, whoВ studiesВ the behavioral pharmacology of cannabis useВ atВ Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,В in a phone interview. “It happens from direct effects of the drug inВ the brain and/or direct effects of the drug on body.”В
“Cannabis can modulate neurotransmitters in parts of the brain that control anxiety and elevateВ yourВ heart rate,” which can in turn create a sense of escalating panic, he explained.
Recognizing the panic attack for what it is
AВ wide variety of physiological effectsВ fall under the umbrella term “panic attack,” though Vandrey cautioned that they’re specific to each person, andВ none can be considered “typical.”
ThereВ “hasnвЂ™t been a lot of research focused exclusively” on the signs ofВ weed-related panic, Vandrey said. “The important thing to note is that itвЂ™s dose-related. You see greater exacerbation of heart rate at higher doses. And it’s more likely to occur in individuals who already deal with anxiety issues or have a predisposition to or familyВ history ofВ them.”
That said, people whoВ experienceВ panic attacks have reportedВ symptoms including, but by no means restricted to:
вЂўВ Racing heartbeat
вЂўВ Tunnel vision
вЂў Sweat or chills
вЂў Chest pains
вЂў Tingling or numbness in the extremitiesВ
вЂў WeaknessВ and dizziness
вЂўВ Trouble breathing
These areВ someВ potential results of aВ “flight-or-fight” response, which is triggered by the brain’s hypothalamus when you instinctuallyВ detect a threat вЂ” either real or imagined. Your wholeВ body is placed on high alert, and fear of impending death or doom is palpable.В
What to do when you know you’re panicking
The key thing to rememberВ is that a panic attack can’t hurt you. Contrary to what some of the above symptoms may suggest, you’re likelyВ not suffering aВ heart attack or obstructed airway.
There’s also zeroВ chance you’veВ “overdosed”В on weed. Remind yourself that this condition is not lasting but temporary. In due course, it will all be over.В
The experienceВ “usually doesn’tВ lastВ that long,” Vandrey said,В perhaps “half hour or an hour, dependingВ on how the cannabisВ was ingested вЂ”В shorter if inhaled, longer if eaten.”В В
“It all depends on the individual,” he said.В “None of it is applicable to everybody.” В
Take stock of your situation and surroundings
For many, weed-based anxiety involves a hefty dose of paranoia about other people. Because marijuana is a drug enjoyed in social settings, getting too stoned can lead to suspicions that your own friends resent you, or that you’re somehow “ruining” their good time.
“Research has shown that individual responses to a given drug can absolutely be influenced by the situation in which it occurs,” Vandrey said. “If somebody takes a drug that produces anxiety in uncomfortable surroundings, they may heighten their anxiety.В Cannabis is a perfect example.”
If environmental factors are contributing to your fear or stress, removing yourself from that context can help.
Ask for help
Resist the idea that anyone hates you for obscure reasons of your own invention. The truth is that anyoneВ not in the throes ofВ panicВ can assure you that your symptoms are exaggerated, impermanentВ and not life-threatening, which is a huge advantage when your mind is playing tricks on you.
A companion is also handy to haveВ when it comes to limiting environmental stressors, and canВ address any simple and immediate needs.
“ThereвЂ™s no one way to treat this,” Vandrey said. “When it does happen in our lab we respond to the needs of the individual. We encourage people to get comfortable and provide them with whatever they need вЂ” whetherВ that’sВ food, or water, or sometimes just to close their eyes, lie down and relax.”
Give yourself a break
As a panic attack releases its grip, you mayВ feel a little sheepish or outright embarrassed about what you did or saidВ whenВ it took hold. “Why did I freak out like that?” you’ll ask yourself.В
Despite popular conceptions of such episodes, Vandrey said they’re “notВ common at all.”В They’reВ especially unusualВ for “frequent, experienced” users:В “It rarely happens, and usually only after very high doses.”В
And while limiting your intake or indulging in a more comfortable environmentВ may prevent a repeat occurrence in the future, the best way to avoid a weed-related panic attack “is is to not use cannabis at all.”В
In other words, this is a risk everyone runs with weed вЂ” but, Vandrey said, a “subset of people” are particularly vulnerable to it. So while someВ stoners can laugh about the times they tipped over the edge into full-blown paranoia and horror,В treating it likeВ a rite of passage, others will find that they’re better off not gambling with their neurochemistry this way.В В
In any case, rest assured that a weed-induced panic attack is not going on your permanent record, and will soon be forgotten by whoever happened to witness it. The only judgment you face is your own.
Figure out what went wrong
As we’ve discussed, “situational” factors are important determinants in matters of substance abuse and addiction, and anyone fond ofВ weed will tell you that theВ effectsВ are similarly contingent on your surroundings: Where were you? Who were you with?В
And, maybe above all:В What was your frame ofВ mind?
AnyВ such detailВ could have contributed toВ your panic attack, and after it’s over, it’s worth considering whether they did вЂ” particularly if this was an isolated incident. You might choose toВ swear offВ potentВ marijuana strains with high levels of THC, the cannabinoid responsible for weed’s psychoactiveВ “high,” or pick the time and place of your weed use more carefully. Strictly limiting the size of your doses is an even better idea.
But, as Vandrey pointed out, none of thisВ is a guarantee against another panic attack. And if theВ oneВ you hadВ fits into a larger pattern of recurrent behavior, then seeking a doctor’s opinion on the nature of your anxiety is the smart move. Even if you think you’reВ self-medicating yourВ anxiety with marijuana, you could be doing more harm than good.В
“CannabisВ I donвЂ™t think is any different thanВ anyВ other drug that can produce anxiety,” Vandrey said вЂ” and there are many drugsВ that can. So don’t let weed’s chill reputation fool you:В As with any prescription you pick up at the pharmacy, it’s essential to be informed of possible adverse effects.В
While many find weed a relaxing drug, marijuanaВ alsoВ has a direct connectionВ to panic attacks. Even aВ habitual smoker who seems the very definition of "chill" has likely had the experienceВ of being way too high, man. В In the moment, that can beвЂ¦