Cannabis is a curious plant with complicated effects. Many use marijuana to help them relax and unwind after a stressful day, but others find that the plant has the opposite effect. It’s just as common for some people to experience heightened anxiety or even full-blown paranoia while using cannabis as it is for others to feel chilled out.
So which is it? Does cannabis help anxiety or actually make it worse? The answer may have to do with THC—the intoxicating compound found in the plant.
How THC Works
There are numerous different types of compounds found in cannabis, which all have unique benefits. Aromatic terpenes give the plant its distinctive complex fragrance and may also have some medicinal benefits, according to new research. There are also dozens of different cannabinoids naturally produced by cannabis, which all impact the human body in various ways. One of the most well-known of these cannabinoids is delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
THC is the molecule in marijuana that gets you stoned. Despite all the psychoactive compounds present in cannabis, THC is the only one confirmed to induce the sort of intoxicating effects associated with a marijuana high. Here’s how it works.
Inside all of our bodies is a complex cell signaling system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which helps us stay balanced. Things like mood, appetite, memory, and reproduction are all partially regulated by this system. When we consume THC, the compound binds directly to the endocannabinoid system’s CB1 receptors, impacting the functions of the ECS and creating the intoxicating feelings we associate with marijuana use.
Because the endocannabinoid system regulates several different bodily functions, so does THC. But let’s take a look specifically at THC and anxiety.
Does THC Give You Anxiety?
If you find yourself feeling anxious after smoking a joint loaded with high-THC cannabis, you’re not alone. It’s a common story, and while some may try to convince you it has to do with sativa vs. indica strains, it may actually have more to do with THC levels.
According to a 2017 study into the effects of cannabis on mental health conducted by the University of Washington’s Dr. Susan A. Stoner (yes, that is her real name), “Pure THC appears to decrease anxiety at lower doses and increase anxiety at higher doses.”
Does THC Help Anxiety?
But if high doses of THC can increase anxiety, why do so many cannabis users find that marijuana helps them relax? Since current research suggests that smaller doses of THC could reduce anxiety, frequent marijuana users who’ve built up a tolerance to THC likely have a larger anxiety-reducing window when it comes to THC percentages.
It may also have to do with another cannabinoid entirely. Contemporary cannabis researchers believe that different cannabinoids and terpenes may have a synergistic effect on each other. We call this the entourage effect.
When present alone, high percentages of THC commonly worsen anxiety. However, research suggests that THC becomes less likely to induce an anxiety response when combined with CBD. While THC makes direct bindings to the CB1 receptors in the ECS, CBD only partially binds to these receptors and acts as a mild antagonist, modulating how the receptor will respond to activation from a THC molecule. Studies indicate that this antagonist reaction may help reduce some of the unwanted effects of THC, including heightened anxiety.
If you’re someone who finds themselves consistently getting anxious when smoking weed, instead of switching to an indica strain, try a product with lower THC percentages. The best THC for anxiety likely will likely be supported by a robust dose of CBD, so look for cannabis products that have close to a 1:1 ratio of CBD:THC.
Ultimately, cannabinoids will affect everyone differently. Myriad factors like weight, metabolism, headspace, gender, and tolerance can all play a role in your overall cannabis experience. THC percentages are just one piece of the puzzle.