Categories
BLOG

scared to smoke weed

Five Ways to Prevent an Anxious High

Alone in my bedroom well past midnight, I began to wonder if that pot brownie I devoured earlier was laced with shrooms. With every twist and turn of the kaleidoscopic patterns forming before my eyes, my heart pounded even harder. “Wait, is the weed giving me a heart attack?” I worried. (I called my medical marijuana doctor the next day to ask if such a thing were possible. It’s not.) Surely there couldn’t have been shrooms in the brownie—it came from a medical marijuana dispensary. But nonetheless, I was freaking out, and even worse, I was ashamed of the way I was feeling—why couldn’t I just get high and be chill? I’ve had my ups and downs with weed for the now ten years it’s been part of my life, though I’ve always been a moderate consumer. Still, the journey through and past my weed anxiety has been a pursuit in self-knowledge and a rewarding path to becoming more grounded.

“As a society, there’s this stigma that anxiety is negative. Before we normalize cannabis, we have to normalize anxiety,” says Jessica Assaf, founder of Cannabis Feminist, a community that empowers women who use both recreational and medical marijuana. “Often, we are ashamed of the anxiety, and that is more dangerous than the anxiety itself.”

She also asserts that getting high is also about relinquishing control. “It’s ultimately recognizing that you have to let go and let the plant do the healing,” Assaf says. “If you go back to the facts and the science, it can be very reassuring: We all have an endocannabinoid system with receptors that exist to bind perfectly to the compounds in the plant.” Here’s some advice from a few experts on how to get your body and mind on the same page when trying to kick back and enjoy a high that actually feels like one.

Cannabis has a biphasic effect, meaning that a low dose can have the opposite effect of a high dose. Half a brownie could have you feeling euphoric, while the whole brownie will have you freaking out. The professionals I spoke with all recommended “start low and go slow.” Wait about ten minutes between hits, or—as Julie Holland, New York-based psychiatrist and author of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis recommends—wait about two hours between edible doses to know a product’s effect before having more.

As I learned the hard way, THC—the main psychoactive compound in cannabis—is likely to feel more psychedelic when you digest it. That’s because your liver turns it into 11-Hydroxy-THC, an active metabolite, which is more psychedelic and lasts longer than regular THC, explains Holland.

Mind your surroundings.

Remember “set and setting,” cautions California-based psychotherapist Ron Alexander, a clinical trainer in the field of mindfulness meditation. “Most people who have a predisposition to social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and/or panic attack should use cannabis at home where they can create a quiet and relaxing atmosphere,” he says. “As the cannabis effect is coming on—for example after ingesting an edible—do some yoga and stretching, meditate, write in a journal, or look at beautiful art books and magazines.”

Advice from someone who's had her share of anxiety from smoking weed.

This Is Why Weed Makes Some People Anxious

As a type A person—a generous understatement—I used to have high hopes that weed could give me that elusive experience known as chilling out. But each of the five times that I tried it in high school and college, it did nothing. Then, when I was 24, a friend and I took a walk through San Francisco and saw a huge cloud of smoke rising from Golden Gate Park. That’s when we realized we’d arrived at around 4:20 on 4/20. Eager to take advantage of the coincidence, I bought a weed-laced Rice Krispies Treat from a guy in the park and downed a third of it. What followed was one of the most stressful afternoons of my life.

As my brain seemed to become progressively slower and more ineffective over the course of the next hour, I worried I wouldn’t remember how to get home. What if I walked in front of a car and died? Then, I got a text from a colleague who needed me to share a Google doc with her. I panicked as I realized that simple task eluded me. I spent ten minutes trying to figure it out, convinced she’d somehow know why I was taking so long and think less of my adulting abilities.

Reeling from that ordeal, I had my friend walk me home. Two ice cream cones later, I lay down in my bed, where I realized my eyes rolled back when I closed them. I opened them in panic, convinced they’d get stuck in the back of my head. Thankfully, after several minutes of debating whether it was safe to close my eyes, the drug’s sedative effects seemed to override the anxiety and paranoia, and I fell asleep. Needless to say, I gave away the other two-thirds of that Rice Krispies Treat.

It seemed unfair that the substance many swore by for anxiety reduction had only made me more anxious. But it turns out my reaction wasn’t that unusual. “[Weed] made me feel overly aware of everything that was going on around me and paranoid that anyone in the same room was watching and judging me,” says Kim, a 26-year-old teacher in New Orleans who declined to share her last name for her career’s sake. “I would eventually just freeze wherever I was so that I wouldn’t do anything ‘wrong’ but still be anxiously spiraling inside my head.”

Weed similarly has given Alaina Leary, a 24-year-old editor in Boston, a flood of worries like: “Does my girlfriend actually love me? Is what I just said really stupid and are my friends going to abandon me now? What if we split up while walking and I get lost forever?”

These reactions aren’t typical, but they’re not uncommon either, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. They’re especially common for people who are new to weed and unfamiliar with the feeling of being high. “The disorientation can be very anxiety provoking,” he explains, as can the loss of control that comes with compromised mental capacities.

However, there’s another reason why people might feel anxious while stoned, even long after their first time. THC binds to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, releasing the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, a neurotransmitter that stops neurons from firing, Giordano explains. Increased GABA and serotonin activity inhibits norepinephrine—a neurotransmitter involved in alertness and anxiety—which calms most people down.

More from Tonic:

But for some people, reduced norepinephrine has a rebound effect, stimulating activity in the brainstem’s locus ceruleus and limbic forebrain, which are involved in arousal and excitation, Giordano says. This activity in turn sends the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, leading to a rise in heart rate and release of cortisol, which we tend to perceive as anxiety.

Paranoia is a separate but often co-occurring side effect of weed, typically caused by an increase in dopamine primarily in the limbic forebrain, Giordano says. This change in dopamine activity can make some people feel anxious and think others are out to get them or judging them.

It’s a cruel irony that the very people who could benefit from weed’s relaxing effects are often the ones who don’t feel them. While some neurotic or hypervigilant people get relief while they’re stoned, others’ fears are exacerbated. “What pot tends to do is augment aspects of one’s personality,” Giordano tells me. “If you tend to be a jovial person, if you’re smoking weed, those personality traits tend to be disinhibited and you become more of that. Individuals who have anxious traits or those with paranoid traits might need a bit of caution.”

People’s reactions to weed tend to be fairly consistent, so if it’s made you anxious once, it might be first-time anxiety, but anything more than that probably means that’s just how your brain responds to the drug, Giordano says. People who have paranoid or anxious reactions to weed should be especially careful about edibles, since those highs tend to last longer. So, maybe stay away from the special Rice Krispies Treats.

If someone around you is having an unpleasant experience on weed, Giordano suggests comforting them and letting them know they’re in a supportive environment. Make sure not to joke about it because that could add to their social anxiety. He adds that if you find yourself in the middle of weed-induced anxiety, getting fresh air and moving around might help you metabolize the drug. Some also find that relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation help.

Most importantly, let someone know you’re having a hard time, even if it feels like you’re killing the mood because everyone else is blissed out. People who get anxious when they’re stoned “should be very forthright about what they’re experiencing, particularly if it’s not pleasant,” Giordano says. “You don’t want to suffer through this by yourself. It can be a scary experience.”

Get a personalized roundup of VICE’s best stories in your inbox.

By signing up to the VICE newsletter you agree to receive electronic communications from VICE that may sometimes include advertisements or sponsored content.

It’s a cruel irony that the very people who could benefit from weed’s relaxing effects are often the ones who don’t feel them.