Using Marijuana for Treating Anxiety
Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.
Verywell / Cindy Chung
As more states legalize marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use, more and more people are turning to cannabis in hopes of managing anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although scientific research in this area is still sparse, there are anecdotal and new scientific reports of marijuana creating a calming experience that temporarily relieves symptoms of anxiety for many people.
Marijuana as Self-Medication
Anytime you take it upon yourself to use a substance to treat or cope with a medical problem or symptom, it is referred to as self-medicating. Often, self-medicating produces an immediate relief of the uncomfortable symptoms, thereby reinforcing its use.
The problem with self-medication is that even though the use of marijuana is becoming more acceptable, not enough is known about the efficacy of the drug for particular medical conditions as well as its long-term consequences.
Potential Benefits and Risks
May reduce depression in the short term
May relieve anxiety temporarily
May reduce stress
Higher levels of psychiatric disorders
Can create psychological dependence
Long-term memory loss may occur
Symptoms may increase
May develop cannabis hyperemesis syndrome
Can create increased tolerance and need
The scientific community has recently started examining the effect of cannabis on anxiety, and the verdict is that short-term benefits do exist.
Scientists at Washington State University published a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders that found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression, anxiety, and stress in the short term. However, repeated use doesn’t seem to lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms and in some individuals may increase depression over time.
Marijuana can affect your body in many ways beyond just getting you high. The high feeling you may experience after smoking or ingesting marijuana is due to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive effects.
The effects of THC do not come without risks, and long-term or frequent use has been associated several potential side effects.
Higher Levels of Psychiatric Disorders
It is possible that people who use marijuana for an extended period of time have higher levels and symptoms of depression, despite any improvements they may have seen in this regard with short-term use.
Some research has also shown that heavy use of marijuana in adolescence (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of depression and anxiety later on in a person’s life. Certain susceptible individuals are also at risk for the development of psychosis with the use of cannabis.
The central problem with using marijuana as an anxiety coping tool is that it can create a psychological dependence on the substance.
Since the effects of marijuana are fast acting, long-term behavior-based coping strategies may seem less helpful at first and may be less likely to be developed.
Long-Term Memory Loss
Several studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause memory loss. Memory impairment occurs because THC alters one of the areas of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation. It also can have negative consequences on the brain’s motivation system.
Increase in Symptoms
THC can raise your heart rate, which, if you have anxiety, may make you feel even more anxious. Using too much marijuana can also make you feel scared or paranoid.
In some cases, marijuana can also induce orthostatic hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure when standing, which can cause lightheadedness or feeling faint. Cannabis can also cause feelings of dizziness, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision, which can contribute to anxiety.
Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome
A rare consequence of frequent marijuana use, particularly with today’s more potent strains, is cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This involves cyclical nausea and vomiting.
This is paradoxical and can be difficult to diagnose, as marijuana has been used to decrease nausea and vomiting in cancer treatment. Sufferers sometimes find relief in hot baths and showers, but ultimately, abstinence from marijuana is necessary for long-term improvement.
You can develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means that the more you use it, the more you will eventually need to get the same “high” as earlier experiences.
Alternatives to Marijuana
Remember that some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful when you are confronted with something that feels threatening to you. However, when feeling anxious becomes pervasive and difficult to control, it is time to seek professional help to discuss other forms of anxiety management.
Proactive coping strategies, learned through counseling, support groups, as well as self-help books and educational websites, can create lasting change without the negative components of extended marijuana use.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy can help you determine the underlying cause of your anxiety and manage it more effectively. Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
Working with a psychotherapist to manage your anxiety will give you a better handle on your condition in the long run.
The use of certain prescription medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been firmly established as safe and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Prescription medication is also preferable to marijuana since the long-term risks have been better studied and are potentially less significant compared to long-term marijuana use. Some anti-anxiety medications are taken daily, while others are taken episodically during periods of extreme anxiety or a panic attack.
A psychiatrist or your primary care doctor can prescribe you an anti-anxiety medication, should you need one.
Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
CBD oil, a marijuana extract that is often dispersed under the tongue with a dropper, doesn’t contain THC, so it won’t give you the same mind-altering effects as marijuana. There is some beginning evidence to suggest that CBD could be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and addiction, but more clinical trials and research are needed in this area.
A Word From Verywell
Symptoms of anxiety are treatable. Studies show that psychotherapy and medication are effective for most individuals, whereas the long-term effects of self-medicating with marijuana have yet to be clearly established. If you’ve recently started experimenting with marijuana use to treat your anxiety, be sure to tell your doctor.
If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Using marijuana can provide short-term symptom relief for anxiety, but there are risks to consider. Learn more about this and longer-term options.
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.