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.
What is Paranoid Thinking?
Paranoid thinking is a normal human experience to have from time to time. In fact, half of the population experiences some paranoid thoughts in a given month.
Paranoia makes you overanalyze things you would normally not even notice. Studies suggest paranoia may result from misinterpreting neutral experiences as negative or frightening.
Paranoia usually feels unpleasant, and people may stop using marijuana if they find they are becoming paranoid often.
Signs of paranoid thinking include:
- Feelings of anxiety, suspicion, or mistrust
- Preoccupation with motives
- Feeling like people want to harm you, upset you, or are against you
- Feeling persecuted or targeted
For many, cannabis provides relief from anxiety better than any prescription drug. Anxiety is one of the most popular conditions treated with medical cannabis in places like California and Colorado. However, cannabis can have a powerful effect in the opposite direction for some, leaving users with crippling anxiety and paranoia. Many of us have experienced a bit of cannabis-induced paranoia at one point or another, but the reasons why might surprise you.
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.
A 2009 review of anxiety and cannabis studies concluded that “frequent cannabis users appear to have higher levels of anxiety than non-users,” and that “a considerable number of subjects developed anxiety disorders before the first symptoms of cannabis dependence.” That led researchers to believe that anxiety-prone people tend to use cannabis as a self-prescribed anxiety medicine, opposing the idea that cannabis is what’s causing the anxiety.
While these cannabis use trends are helpful in understanding broad behavioral tendencies, researchers acknowledge that anxiety is highly individualized based on a number of risk factors:
- Genetic vulnerability
- History of paranoid episodes
- Presence of anxiety disorder
- Basal anxiety levels
- Abstinence states
And when you throw cannabis into the mix, a few other risk factors emerge:
- Frequency of use
- Set and setting
While anxiety is no doubt unique and nuanced in every individual, researchers noted that regular users tend to see a decrease in anxiety whereas occasional and new users were more likely to experience heightened paranoia. Anxiety was also more likely to occur in high doses of THC.
Why does marijuana have such a polarizing effects on fear and anxiety?
When it comes to cannabis and paranoia, it’s literally all in your head. Cannabinoids (such as THC) bind to receptors throughout the brain, many of which are focused in the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional processing, governing responses such as fear, stress, and paranoia. When THC acts upon the amygdala, it modifies the neural communication for better or for worse.
THC can overexcite the neural pathways and lead to anxiety and paranoia, especially in individuals who are new or unaccustomed to cannabis. The mechanisms by which this happens are still unclear to researchers, but the body’s endocannabinoid system seems to be full of hints.
Put simply, our body contains receptor sites that are not only filled by marijuana’s cannabinoids, but also by naturally-produced compounds called endocannabinoids that act a lot like those compounds found in cannabis. Shortages of these endocannabinoids have been observed in brains that have been exposed to excessive stress and trauma, which could explain why THC has a relaxing, anti-anxiety effect in some people. In theory, cannabinoids from marijuana replenish these regulatory compounds, resulting in a therapeutic effect. This connection has been pertinent in PTSD studies and could hold promising implications for other mood disorders as well.
Marijuana activates areas of the brain related to emotion and fear. This can cause you to interpret normal experiences as threatening or dangerous.
A study published in 2014 found cannabinoid receptors in the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and fear — the amygdala. Paranoia is driven by anxiety and fear, and this brain area plays an important role in why weed makes you paranoid. Yet marijuana users often say they smoke to “chill out” and reduce their anxiety.
The relationship between marijuana and anxiety is complicated. Some people feel more anxious and paranoid after smoking marijuana while others feel less anxious. This may have something to do with strain content. Generally, high-CBD strains are used for anxiety reduction, while high-THC strains run the risk of making you paranoid.
A 2011 study showed that THC causes the emotional areas of the brain to go on high alert. These areas were more sensitive, and more likely to process neutral experiences as threatening or dangerous. A feeling of threat could contribute to the fear that drives paranoia.
If you’re susceptible to or worried about cannabis-induced paranoia, fear not – there are ways to prevent, even counter, that anxiety. Here are just a few tips:
- Try a low-THC and/or high-CBD strain. CBD is a non-intoxicating compound that combats anxiety and counteracts THC’s psychoactive effects, resulting in a calmer and more clear-headed experience.
- Go easy on the dose. Smoking and vaporizing offer better dose control than oils and edibles
- Set and setting is pivotal to the experience, so get to a happy place to reduce panic and paranoia.