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
- 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).
- 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.
Marijuana-Induced Anxiety Is Weed Culture’s Bigfoot
You might not remember your first time smoking weed. But you’ll remember the first time smoking weed made you freak the fuck out.
I was at a friend’s house five years ago, curled into a ball after three hits of unequivocally good weed. My brain loomed in and out of consciousness. I was scared. Every few seconds, the room would turn black. I could feel my heart about to burst, and eventually, I succumbed to a comatose-like sleep. It wasn’t like other times, and it sucked.
Marijuana-induced anxiety is weed culture’s Bigfoot—an urban legend that’s perpetuated by hearsay, rather than fact. Everyone knows someone whose friend’s cousin had a bad trip. (“But like, weed is really good for anxiety, right?”). As a result, the truth of the matter is muddled, and discussing reefer madness can actually make you feel insane.
“I puked some indeterminate number of times. Then I basically just lay down on the tile floor. Some part of me was aware, the whole time, that I was just way too high, and it would eventually pass,” one person told me about their experience. “I woke up on the bathroom floor in the morning. I felt extremely bad.”
“My boyfriend and I had tickets to a Kate Nash concert and smoked a joint before heading out,” said another. “I remember feeling kind of floaty on the cab ride over—almost like I wasn’t fully in my body…Then, during the opener, the room started to go dizzy and I suddenly couldn’t see or hear anything. The next thing I remember is waking up on the floor several minutes later, a crowd of people hovering around me, feeling like I’d died.”
“I wasn’t right for the next three days,” one person who developed a later anxiety disorder told me. “My friends still talk about this event and we laugh, but that experience fucked me up and I never smoked weed again. And never will.”
I spoke to dozens of people whose symptoms were mostly the same: anxiety, distorted vision or hearing, dizziness, and blacking out. These aren’t the nice effects of weed, mind you. And as someone with an anxiety disorder, I can tell you they feel a lot like a panic attack.
Thanks in part to stringent marijuana laws, it’s been difficult for researchers to gather data that isn’t only self-reported.
But it’s not clear whether weed jumpstarts anxiety disorders, and the association is tenuous. When existing studies on this topic were reevaluated, and other anxiety stressors were controlled for, an almost insignificant amount of people showed a link between marijuana use and anxiety development. Research based on longitudinal data from a National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which included interviews with 34,653 participants, also found negligible evidence that weed can catalyze anxiety.
Still, thanks in part to stringent marijuana laws, it’s been difficult for researchers to gather data that isn’t only self-reported. Things like cannabis strain, for instance, which can determine the type of high that someone gets, are impossible to standardize in large studies.
“It’s not just whether or not a person has a genetic risk factor. It’s really looking at the expression of those genes, and that’s brought on by environmental factors that change the way genes are expressed,” April Thames, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, told me.
“It’s conceivable that the use of these substances could impact one’s trajectory to develop anxiety, but need there needs to be more research.”
For people who already have anxiety disorders, it’s a little different. Stress and anxiety are brother and sister—controlling one can help the other. A prominent theory suggests that naturally occurring cannabinoids in our brains can be produced in response to stress hormones. These molecules, in turn, may disrupt the amygdala, a region near the base of our brain that contributes to anxious feelings when overstimulated, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. It should be noted, however, that this was an animal study, which affects its ability to reliably predict these same results in humans.
Another study, published one year earlier in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, also linked cannabinoids, specifically anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), to stress responses. It stated that certain cannabinoid receptors interact with these molecules to regulate stress. Based on this research, it’s been theorized that when tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—the psychoactive compound in weed that gets you high—binds with specific brain receptors, feelings of anxiety can either be increased or decreased. And for some people, smoking weed with higher levels of THC can induce symptoms common with anxiety.
“If someone has a history of anxiety, panic episodes, or even depression, cannabis can exacerbate those effects, according to some literature,” Thames added. “There’s some thought that cannabis has a connection [with making these receptors more sensitive], bringing on an anxiety-like state.”
Different strains of weed can also play a role. Thoughtful sellers often prescribe indica, rather than sativa, to anxiety-prone people. There are shaky genetic differences between modern Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, but very broadly, certain types of indica can possess higher cannabidiol (CBD) levels. CBD is a cannabinoid like THC, but is non-psychoactive, resulting in a gentler high. (As with all homeopathic medicine, your method may vary.)
If one thing’s for certain, it’s that weed is still drastically under-researched, and we won’t know if and when weed will give us a panic attack until we surpass regulatory hurdles and embrace the science. Hopefully, as marijuana laws become less draconian, psychologists will have more freedom to study its effects—positive and negative.
Until then, don’t feel down if weed makes you feel bad. Experiment with different strains, and at the end of the day, remember that it’s supposed to make you feel good.
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Ever get the fear when you smoke pot? Scientists are still trying to work out why.