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
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.”