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.
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.ВWhile 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¦ ]]>