Many people find that enjoying cannabis helps them unwind and relax, helping to shed away the stress of daily life. Curiously, others find that cannabis has the exact opposite effect—stimulating anxieties and provoking intense feelings of paranoia.
So what’s the deal? Is cannabis a cure for anxiety, or does it only heighten it? Keep reading to learn more about why some cannabis users have such drastically different experiences.
How Cannabis Interacts With Your Brain
When we smoke marijuana or consume any kind of cannabinoid, it interacts directly with our brain and central nervous system through a system of neurotransmitter receptors known and the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
These receptors help to regulate all sorts of basic human functions, including memory retention, appetite, mood, and sex drive. Typically, our bodies send chemical messengers called endocannabinoids which bind to the cannabinoid receptors, triggering the release of hormones and other chemical messengers like dopamine, for example.
The Science Behind Cannabis And Anxiety
We’ve all been there — smoked too much cannabis or bitten off more than we can chew with an edible; now, suddenly, things are getting a little too intense. You’re thrown off-kilter; then the fear sets in. Does everyone here secretly hate me? Is my heart beating too fast? Am I acting weird?
It turns out, there may be a scientific answer to why cannabis sometimes triggers this kind of response.
When THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors in our brain, it can trigger the release of several different neurotransmitters, including gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is known to inhibit neural excitability and reduce the amount of the stress hormone norepinephrine.
Typically, inhibiting norepinephrine has a calming effect, which may be why many people find cannabis to be relaxing. However, it can create a rebound effect that sends the body’s fight or flight response into overdrive. It can release a different stress hormone called cortisol, and increase the heart rate—all of which could produce an anxiety-like feeling in a person.
Alternatively, some scientists theorize that THC may overstimulate the amygdala. This almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located in the temporal lobe acts as the fear center for the brain. Since THC binds directly to the cannabinoid receptors located in the amygdala, it is plausible that it could be responsible for creating a fear response, paranoia, or increased anxiety.
Utilizing CBD And The Entourage Effect
Studies suggest that combining CBD with your THC-rich cannabis could help temper some of the unwanted side effects of cannabis, including paranoia and anxiety. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t directly bind to cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it acts as a weak antagonist to these receptors and modulates the effects of other cannabinoids like THC by literally blocking their access to cannabinoid receptors.
Combining different cannabinoids, alongside the natural terpenes found in cannabis, can enhance the therapeutic benefits of the plants while making for an overall more pleasant experience for the user. This phenomenon is referred to as the entourage effect, and it’s why more people are switching to full-spectrum products or simply opting for whole flower.
The Importance Of Set And Setting
In many ways, cannabis behaves like a psychedelic drug. Like with LSD, mushrooms, or other psychedelics, several factors can influence a person’s cannabis experience. In the psychedelic community, maintaining a positive set and setting is of paramount importance for having a good trip.
The setting is literally where you are in space. Are you in an unfamiliar room with people you don’t know or are you in a comfortable area with good friends and good vibes? Being high underneath the oppressive fluorescent lighting of your local grocery store can feel a lot different than being high while laid out on your sofa.
Set refers to what you as a person bring to the experience through your internal narrative and emotional state. Are you feeling anxious about an upcoming work project or feeling an excess of negativity? These emotions are often heightened while under the influence of psychedelics.
If you find yourself feeling paranoid or anxious while using cannabis, altering your set and setting may be a way to have a more relaxing experience.