Does the herb help relieve anxiety or does it cause it? What the experts say

Many people smoke cannabis for relaxation, but it doesn’t always work that way.

The effects cannabis can have on mood vary widely, leaving some people calm and content and others anxious and irritable, research shows.

The effects of the herb may even vary with each experience and may be influenced by how anxious you are when ingesting the drug. A person can smoke or ingest the same amount of cannabis on two different occasions and have two completely different experiences, said Ryan Vandrey, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“A lot of it could be the baggage you’re carrying around in the situation,” Vandrey said. “It’s really hard to predict.”

Why does cannabis affect people differently?

Experts say the type of cannabis, the amount consumed and how it is used – smoked, vaporized or eaten, for example – all determine how it affects the body. Cannabis contains varying levels of different compounds. THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the component of cannabis responsible for the “floating” effect of weed. CBD, or cannabidiol, appears to work through different receptors in the brain and does not produce the same high.

“We have this way of talking about cannabis as if it’s a thing, and it’s not,” said Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. The plant is “incredibly complex in the most amazing way”.

The effect of cannabis can also vary depending on how you ingest it. When you smoke or use a vaporizer to inhale cannabis, the drug can metabolize in the body in “a few moments to minutes,” Gruber said. It can take 45 minutes or more for someone to feel the effects of an edible, and the time will depend on what is already in your stomach.

And not everyone gets the same “high”. Your age, how often you use cannabis, your sensitivity to THC, and how quickly you are able to metabolize the drug are all factors that affect how the drug affects you.

“We are all very different,” said Bryon Adinoff, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and president of the advocacy group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “There are all these things that are going to influence how we react to cannabis.”

How THC Level Affects Anxiety

Cannabis has different effects at lower doses than at high doses. Generally, low doses of THC are well tolerated, stimulating dopamine release, and higher doses of THC can make people feel anxious, said Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “Seeing Through The Smoke”. », a book reviewing the latest medical research on cannabis.

“The main way to mess with cannabis is to use too high a dose and get very, very anxious,” said Grinspoon, who is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

“Some patients can’t use it at all, even a little bit, because the slightest little bit makes them anxious.”

Your state of mind matters

Cannabis affects virtually every neural connection in the brain, even more so than stimulants such as cocaine and opioids, said Judy Grisel, professor of psychology at Bucknell University and author of “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.” This, in turn, means cannabis can cause a wide range of reactions, depending on the person, she said.

“It’s going to turn up the volume of everything,” Grisel said, which is why food tastes better and music sounds better to some people when they’re high.

Many people swear by the calming effect of weed, but Grisel said there doesn’t appear to be a “molecular reason” why THC would relieve a person’s feelings of anxiety or stress. Instead, people may experience a calming or relaxing effect because the drug may improve the way you already feel.

If you’re using cannabis on “a nice, sunny, windy day,” Grisel said, then the weed will enhance the smooth, relaxing vibe. This also means that for those who feel anxious, cannabis can make them more susceptible to stress or prone to paranoia.

“When you smoke, every synapse resonates, which means everything is boosted,” Grisel said. “Low-level, maybe subthreshold, anxiety that you’ve been dealing with at work or school, or thinking about global climate change or whatever, that sort of thing is also reinforced.”

Sariyah, a 20-year-old living in Georgia, smoked cannabis every day when she got off work. She said she felt the weed helped her relax. But then, a few months ago, cannabis started to make it worse.

“Eventually, over time, it started to make my heart pound,” said Sariyah, who asked that her full name not be used because her family doesn’t know she uses cannabis.

Sariya said grass often enhances his “deepest thoughts”. If she is sad or anxious, she feels it even more when she smokes. Sariyah said she cut down on her intake and wanted to find the dose of weed that reliably works to ease her anxiety.

Now she smokes about twice a week. “Most of the time I don’t get anxious when I smoke, but sometimes it’s there,” Sariyah said. “Sometimes it comes out of nowhere.”

The risk of anxiety is higher in adolescents

Decades of clinical research have shown that THC can have a negative effect on brain development, and regular cannabis use in adolescence is associated with a higher likelihood of developing anxiety and depression later in life. in life.

“Smoking early can catalyze anxiety and depression,” Grisel said. “It’s unclear exactly how this happens, but the evidence is very strong.”

Smoking cannabis regularly for a long time will change the way your brain reacts to drugs, experts say. Frequent and prolonged use can cause a decrease in the number of cannabinoid receptors, which is why people may start to feel less of the drug’s effects over time.

Megan Mbengue, a cannabis nurse and educator who also sells her own line of CBD oils and edibles, said the problem is that some people rely on cannabis as “their only tool” to manage stress and anxiety. anxiety.

“We see downregulation of cannabinoid receptors,” Mbengue said. “There’s all this THC floating around, and there’s nothing the THC can attach to that it can’t create this calming, medicinal effect by binding to the receptors.”

And long-time cannabis users who stop taking the drug may experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety and depression, as the brain has come to expect the influx of cannabis compounds.

The calming effects of CBD

CBD has a similar structure to THC, but it doesn’t affect the brain’s reward circuitry in the same way, which means there’s less of a risk of abuse, Gruber said. A growing body of research supports that CBD may reduce anxiety or stress.

“There is growing evidence that, for at least some people, there is absolutely clinical benefit,” Gruber said. “We definitely need more data, which we are working to collect.”

A small study published last year suggests that cannabis with equal parts CBD and THC may induce less anxiety than “THC-dominant” weed.

Dani Gildemontes-Davila, a 27-year-old woman who lives in California and sells cannabis-related products online, said that during the work week she usually smokes weed to combat anxiety at the end of the day. , often taking a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC. Gildemontes-Davila said she preferred the weed to other prescription medications she took.

“I have three prescriptions,” she said. “I can easily say that the one with the least side effects, and the one where I always feel like myself, is weed.”

Regular use of CBD can affect how other drugs are metabolized in the body, so people should check with a doctor or pharmacist familiar with cannabis if they are using other drugs.

Understand the effects

Smoking a cannabis joint isn’t like sipping a glass of beer or wine, said Andrew Koudijs, owner of a cannabis dispensary in Provincetown, Mass. Each puff of weed “doubles your dose” and potentially doubles your high.

“Always start with one and see how you feel,” Koudijs said. “A little breath could lift someone very high.”

Doctors say vaping cannabis is safer than smoking it. Burning cannabis and breathing the smoke exposes you to toxic chemicals from combustion that can damage your lungs. Vaporizers, known as vaporizer pens, heat cannabis in an aerosol without burning the plant or the oil.

“You don’t get all the combustion products like tar, benzene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” Grinspoon said. “It’s a much safer inhalation option.”

Vaping also has its own health issues.

For some, weed will never be enjoyable, experts say. It’s the same reason people don’t drink alcohol or caffeine. they just don’t like how it makes them feel.

“Some people will use cannabis and say it’s the only thing that helps them deal with their anxiety,” Vandrey said. “And there are people who will potentially even use the same product and say it was the worst experience of my life.”

Hannah Docter-Loeb contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article misspelled Staci Gruber’s last name as Grubel in two instances. This version has been corrected.

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