Why Pot Makes You Paranoid—but Mellows Out Your Buddies
The kind of high you experience depends on a whole bunch of thing
Pot has the overriding perception as the chill-out drug. In fact, almost a third of marijuana users in the U.S. say the main purpose of it is to reduce anxiety or stress, a recent Marist poll found.
But that’s not always the case—in fact, lighting up leaves lots of people paranoid, anxious, and eager for the high to fade. And that can impact those who are not prone to anxiety.
Turns out, there are several factors that can turn a blissfully mellow high into heart-racing paranoia. Here’s what’s going on.
How Pot Gets You High
The high you experience with marijuana actually mimics a process your body has in place to keep anxiety levels in check, says Gregory Gerdeman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College.
This happens through what’s called your endocannabinoid system: One of its functions is to cool down brain synapses that release stimulating neurotransmitters, the primary “go” signal used in brain circuits, says Gerdeman. The endocannabinoid system helps pump the brakes by triggering the release of cannabinoids, chemical compounds that bind to cannabinoid receptors throughout your brain and body. That sends the signal to chill out when we’re wired.
“These receptors are expressed at high levels in areas of the brain that have to do with mood regulation,” says Steven Kinsey, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and coordinator of the Behavioral Neuroscience Training Program at West Virginia University. In 2014, a study from Vanderbilt University found that many of these cannabinoid receptors are found in the amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates anxiety and the fight-or-flight response.
Marijuana contains plant-based cannabinoids, too. So when you smoke, vape, or otherwise consume weed, the cannabinoids bind to the same receptors in your body. And that triggers the same relaxing feeling as the release and binding of your body’s own cannabinoids does.
But the truth is, this system doesn’t always go according to plan. There are some factors that can make your hit more likely you to tweak you out than bliss you out.
Higher Levels Of THC Can Make You More Anxious
THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive compound of cannabis, which binds directly to the cannabinoid receptors, says Kinsey. At lower doses this tends to be pretty relaxing. However, the higher the dosage, the more likely it is to spark an anxious reaction.
It’s called a biphasic response, says Gerdeman. As you start to take in small amounts of THC, it can cause a therapeutic effect. But the higher you go, the more likely you are to trigger the opposite effect.
Controlled research here is limited and individual tolerance varies, says Gerdeman, but a recent study provides a benchmark. Researchers from the University of Chicago tested how THC amounts influenced 42 pot users under stressful conditions. Those who took in 7.5 milligrams (mg) of THC felt less stressed by a mock interview than participants given a placebo, and their stress levels went down faster, too. (Here are 19 ways to live a stress-free life.)
But those who took in 12.5 mg of THC reported negative emotions during the mock interview, and were more likely to rate the task as “challenging” or “threatening.”
For reference, Gerdeman says that a joint with about one gram of cannabis flower that has a 15 percent THC content would contain about 150 mg of THC. (Of course, the THC content could be much higher and the joint could be fatter than a single gram, so this isn’t a guarantee.) Some of that THC gets destroyed in the burn, and how much you inhale and your lungs absorb varies widely based on your smoking technique. So if you were to say, smoke a whole joint (not advisable), you’d probably go way beyond that 12.5 mg of THC and straight into the stress zone.
Researchers aren’t exactly clear why more pot leads to the opposite response of lower doses. But like with any drug, it might have to do with differing thresholds, explains Kinsey.
“Some people have a very broad tolerance to the drug, and this is true of sugar and tobacco and alcohol,” he says. “And there can become a point where it’s no longer fun. For example, I enjoy gummy bears. But there are only so many I can eat before I feel sick.”
Tolerance likely depends on a number of factors, including genetics, the makeup of your own neural network in your brain, and how much you’ve used the drug, Kinsey says.
But Another Pot Compound Can Counteract THC
THC is just one piece of the puzzle, though—there are more than 60 other cannabinoids that have been identified in marijuana, including cannabidiol, or CBD. And it seems like CBD actually lessens the stress-promoting consequences of too much THC.
It’s possible that CBD may tone down the receptors that THC binds to by blocking endocannabinoid metabolism, so the effect of the THC may not be as intense—and therefore less likely to steer you into anxiety, says Gerdeman. It’s also possible that CBD also acts on the receptor for serotonin in your brain, which can turn down your stress response.
Overall, lighting up a joint with more THC and less CBD is far more likely to stress you out, says Kinsey.
So if you don’t want to get paranoid, just pick a strain that has more CBD, right?
Well, it’s not so easy. While different strains of cannabis have different levels of THC and CBD, you don’t really know how much of each cannabinoid you’re getting—no matter what your dispensary says.
For example, strains like ACDC, Cannatonic, and Harlequin are touted for their low THC and high CBD content, and pretty much everything else, like OG Kush, is said to be high in THC. But experts say that this is largely, well, BS.
“Just somebody saying, ‘this Blue Dream,’ or ‘this is a heavy sativa,’ or ‘this is a heavy indica’ is practically meaningless these days,” says Gerdeman. “There’s so much misinformation that sometimes breeders don’t even know.”
Researchers have proven this point by purchasing different samples of the same strain in the same city and using advanced testing methods to see what’s really in there, says Dr. Kinsey. Oftentimes, they’re completely different from each other (and different from what the person selling it claims).
Edibles Are Particularly Tricky
Your high depends mainly on the levels of THC and CBD—not necessarily the method you use to consume it, says Kinsey.
However, edibles in particular are much more likely to have high levels of THC in them, which makes them more likely to cause paranoia. Many of them also have very little CBD and other cannabinoids, so you’re losing out on some of the offsetting compounds as well. Plus, ingesting your drugs, rather than smoking, delays the high. Impatient users often consume too many edibles, which can lead to a bad trip.
A reasonable dose of a single-serving edible should generally have about 10 mg of THC, says Gerdeman, which falls in between the calming 7.5 mg and the stress-inducing 12.5 mg pinpointed in the University of Chicago study (so your reaction really will depend on your personal tolerance). But many products that dispensaries sell are much higher, and thus more likely to cause anxiety.
“For most people, if they eat 30 mg of THC in an edible dose, there are going to be a lot of psychoactive side effects that they don’t want,” says Gerdeman. In addition to anxiety and paranoia, Gerdeman says this can also cause sedation, delirium, and dizziness upon standing. Not fun. (Here’s what happened when one man ate too many edibles.)
Even though individual tolerance levels differ, any product with between 30 to 40 mg of THC without much CBD present is pretty likely to stress you out—though the most tolerant and accustomed users may be exempt, says Gerdeman.
Again, though, a package stating a dosage may not be that reliable. Many edibles are mislabeled, says Gerdeman, and there’s pretty much no regulation—plus, if a batch hasn’t been very thoroughly mixed, you may end up with a part that has way more (or less) THC than a label says.
Your Age and Your Mood Can Affect Your High, Too
Your brain changes as you age, and so does your endocannabinoid system, says Gerdeman. For instance, receptor density gets lower as you get age.
“If somebody smoked robustly in their 20s and picked it back up in their 30s, their brain’s endocannabinoid system may not be at the same set point,” says Gerdeman. That’s why you may notice getting paranoid when you smoke now, whereas pot may have mellowed you out when you were in college.
It’s not just you, though—there’s another way time affects your high. Over the past several decades, marijuana has been bred to have way higher levels of THC than it did in the good old days, says Kinsey.
According to Gerdeman, experts say that the percentage of THC in cannabis was about 7 percent in the 70s, while it’s often about 20 percent these days and often much higher. (Remember, as a middle ground, 15 percent THC content in one gram of cannabis flower would shake out to about 150 mg.) However, Gerdeman stresses that these estimates aren’t necessarily that accurate because the old data may not be reliable as what’s out there now.
Even so, if you think you’re smoking the same amount that you used to—say, you always cut yourself off after one joint shared between a handful of buddies—the THC may be off the charts compared to what you used to buy.
What’s more, how you’re feeling can affect your tolerance too. When life is stressing you out, you might be more susceptible to the anxiety-inducing effects of pot. There’s a bit of emotional release that happens when you get high, and if you’re barely controlling your emotions without weed, adding a joint or edible into the mix could give your subconscious mind permission to, well, freak out, says Gerdeman. This isn’t true for everyone, of course—some people find it useful to let go a little bit when they’re dealing with a particularly tough or vulnerable time.
Setting is also important, too, Gerdeman adds: If you’re already super paranoid about where you are or having your wife walk in when you’re smoking up, for example, you may be more likely to feel more paranoid when you’re actually high.
If anxiety hits during your next high, the best thing you can take a time out. Go for a breather, but don’t drive anywhere.
“Your liver will help clear it out, but the more THC you have on board the longer that will take,” Kinsey says. How long are we talking? Depending on how much you consumed and your own body chemistry, it could take a couple hours (or more), says Gerdeman—but it will pass, he assures.
Still, if pot continues to make you feel crappy, that might be a sign to put down the joint. Plus, while the climate around recreational pot use is changing, and it’s now legal in several states, no one knows how it affects your health down the line.
The kind of high you experience depends on a whole bunch of thing
High paranoia strains
Even the most laid back members of Lit Nation have been there. You take the hit, hold tight, let loose and, instead basking in hazy sweetness and heightened streams of pleasure, the inside of your skull goes all:
“Who’s that calling my phone? How did they get my number? I know it’s in my pocket, but is that even my phone? Should I toss it out the window? Wait a minute — is my phone actually even ringing? Is anybody’s?”
Paranoia is a well-known, often joked-about, and occasionally (somewhat) serious potential side of effect of consuming cannabis. Irrational fear responses to reefer can range in intensity from full-blown panic attacks to hours of bug-eyed self-consciousness to buzz-killing conundrums in the vein of, “Is my boss going to smell this on me tomorrow morning? What about when I see my parents. next Christmas?”
Related: Weird Weed Shirts From Around the Web
In a real way, such intoxicated anxiety is the flip side to pot’s far more typical impact of good times and mellow vibes. Science even provides an explanation as to why. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. THC is a cannabinoid, which means it’s a chemical that, once introduced to a human system, temporarily affects the areas of the brain that control fear and stress. Under usual circumstances, that change is uplifting and positive. Other times, though, THC can directly trigger worry and distress. Still, as noted, most who indulge have, to some degree, experienced both ups and downs on a doob-by-doob basis.
So why do some folk who toke careen down the freak-out path? Many factors come into play on the order of genetics, personality, and pre-existing dispositions toward concern and nervousness. The amount and frequency with which one celebrates 420 can also play a major part. Then, too, there’s the fact that every strain of green delivers something different to every inhalant’s own mind-and-body chemistry. That stated, online chatter has pointed out a bowlful of bud variations that some users claim deliver joints full of jitters. While scientific evidence that these strains are surefire tickets to Fear City is limited, rumors abound nonetheless. Here are the eight we’ve been hearing about the most.
Cindy99 image via MedicalMarijuanaStrains.com
The Amsterdam-based Mr. Soul developed the sativa-dominant Cinderella 99 — more commonly called Cindy99 — from a beloved plant named Princess.
As a result, Cindy99 has been known to knock some users unconscious and flip others out in pure terror.
Even Mr. Soul himself once decreed: “Two hits of Princess will induce your body to tremble involuntarily and your heart to race and paranoid thoughts.”
Named for the province of Vietnam from whence it arose — and where the country’s communist icon Ho Chi Minh was born — Dalat is described as an “heirloom sativa.”
It’s reportedly become a challenge to track down, perhaps in part to its overwhelming kick in the cranium.
Writing about Dalat on the THC Farmer forum, user N8tive Farmer stated that the strain “will stop your breath and paranoia begins, sweats, can’t drive, almost a paranoid blow high, lol.” Yeah… LOL!
Jack the Ripper image via MedicalJane.com
It seems as though TGA Genetics didn’t name their flagship hybrid Jack the Ripper (JTR) after a world-(in)famous murdered for nothing — this stuff is killer.
The website Leafly’s review acknowledges that JTR may the most fast-acting lemon Haze on the market right now, but adds up front: “The effect is intense, visually stimulating, and can sometimes leave novice consumers disoriented and paranoid.”
TGA’s own website makes sure the “p” words lands prominently in description of JTR’s high.
Sour Diesel image via MedicalMarijuanaStrains.com
The popular daytime strain Sour Diesel comes by its name fragrantly: it’s said to reek like burning fuel.
With THC content often between 19% and 25%, Sour Diesel can run some smokers smack off the highest of highways and into heavy congestion with multiple stressed out thoughts crashing together into a sizable pile-up.
As the review site Herb puts it: “If you are inexperienced with cannabis, you may not enjoy the raciness that can come along with this Sativa.”
Super Silver Haze image via MedicalMarijuanaStrains.com
Deemed “the king of all Sativas in the 1990s” by Wikileaf, Super Silver Haze propels smokers on a rocket ride that sends the mind reeling, followed by a laid-back body high of a landing.
Along the way, though, some smokers report disappearing into their own black holes where they worrying about what’s hurtling toward them before they can smoothly return to terra firma.
In 2015, the pop culture site Complex ranked Trainwreck among its 15 Best Weed Strains Available Right Now.
To be sure, this hybrid hits like a locomotive and it most frequently elevates smokers to states of euphoric bliss. In addition, numerous PTSD patients attest that Trainwreck helps enormously to alleviate their suffering.
Still, that degree of potency can also come with an equal-and-opposite effect.
In response to a positive Trainwreck review on the website Medical Marijuana Strains, a user called Stomp wrote: “They ought to call this weed heaven and hell. Sometimes the high is heavenly exhilarating. Other times nightmarish, [creating] paranoid couch lock… I’m already paranoid, but Trainwreck intensified it x25.”
Like its homegrown neighbor Dalat, Vietnamese Black has been known to carpet-bomb cannabis fans epic with fits of phobia.
Celebrating such sensations on the Roll It Up forum, contributor SSO writes that he flies to Vietnam himself for seeds of Black and other variants. He further states: “4-5 tokes and you were seeing colors in shadows and s–t like that… can induce heavy, heavy paranoia… really nice stuff though, once you get used to it.”
Originating in the 1970s and evolving into its current form in the late ’80s, William’s Wonder is a pure Indica bred for easy indoor cultivation.
With THC levels reaching up to 30%, this Wonder-full stuff packs a wallop that can lay-out novice nug-nuts with deliriums of dread. Wisely, then, the website CannaSOS warns of WW: “Not recommended for first-time smokers.”
Find these strains and others in the GOODS section, and find where to get them by using the MERRY JANE Dispensary Locator.
"They ought to call this weed heaven and hell. Sometimes the high is heavenly exhilarating Other times it's nightmarish…"