Have you ever wondered why some people experience social paranoia after using marijuana, while others actually use it to treat anxiety? Our understanding is that a combination of factors contributes to this completely polarized effect that marijuana can induce between users.
A combination of high THC levels and differently functioning endocannabinoid systems has a lot to do with why some people experience social paranoia. For those who have lower levels of endogenous cannabinoids, the introduction of exogenous cannabinoids can help with anxiety. On the other hand, in a perfectly functioning endocannabinoid system, marijuana can throw things out of balance, causing a person stress and anxiety.
Staying conscious of dosage, strain, set and setting can help to combat episodes of social paranoia.
LET’S DIVE DEEPER
To those who smoke marijuana regularly, it is a complete mystery why others experience social paranoia. And of course, for those people who find marijuana to be an uncomfortable experience, it seems utterly crazy that some use it to treat anxiety.
Most of my research, as well as my own personal experience with cannabis, has led me to understand that it has a lot to do with our own personal predispositions. How we are as people without marijuana tells us a lot about whether we are prone to experiencing bouts of paranoia or not.
What can be experienced as simple worrying for some people can snowball into a full psychotic episode for others. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that people are already paranoid before using the herb.
The type of weed being used can also play a huge part in the final experience. Even the most seasoned marijuana user has probably experienced paranoia to some degree at some point in their lives.
The most important thing to realise is that marijuana affects each person differently. Remaining sensitive to oneself is the most fruitful way to manage a marijuana experience.
Marijuana is way stronger now than it used to be
Before getting into the nitty gritty of brain chemistry, we need to acknowledge one thing. We are producing some of the strongest marijuana that the human species has ever known!
Modern weed is dank compared to what we used to smoke hundreds of years ago. This is mostly to do with the fact that we are growing strains of weed that have incredibly high THC content. Some Cannabis Cup winners score over 20% for THC content, more than twice what our ancestors were used to.
For those who didn’t know, THC is the psychoactive compound inside of marijuana. There used to be a much better balance between THC and its non-psychoactive counterpart, CBD. This probably allowed for a much smoother experience. But we all love the blitzing effect of THC, so geneticists have been working hard to increase THC content while high CBD strains have been targeted towards medical patients.
In fact, CBD is said to have an anti-psychotic effect, meaning that it actually counteracts the effects of THC. When these two cannabinoids are present in a strain in an equal amount, the psychoactive component doesn’t have so much force. So as you can imagine, many of the strains we are smoking these days have a much more psychedelic effect than we are generally used to experiencing from cannabis alone.
This might have a lot to do with why we see such a polarised effect when it comes to marijuana. It’s even extremely likely that those who use marijuana as a form of relaxation are using strains that are higher in CBD. This doesn’t explain everything, but it’s important to note that our brains are only just recently dealing with the onslaught of THC that modern technology has graced us with.
This is what is happening in your brain when you smoke marijuana
As you might say to some of your friends who are experiencing a cannabis induced psychotic moment – “It’s all in your head!”
Brain chemistry and marijuana’s influence on it has a lot to do with why some people experience social paranoia. To put it really simply, your brain begins to function in a totally different way following marijuana use, and while some love the change, others simply cannot enjoy it.
When THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, certain neural pathways are excited beyond measure. For frequent users, certain receptors can actually be switched off or desensitized to the arrival of THC. But for most people using marijuana infrequently, it is quite the opposite.
One of the parts of the brain most influenced by the ingestion of THC is the amygdala, responsible for emotional processing and fear response. Because there are cannabinoid receptors all over the body, what starts as the excitation of a neural pathway can quickly have effects in the body. For lack of a better way of saying it, the brain sensation quickly leaks into the body (a fast beating heart, for example), turning the entire experience into a hellish nightmare for some people.
In most everyday circumstances, a single thought can appear without having any effect on a person. Under the influence of marijuana, that thought might appear much more aggressively.
The creative capacity one holds when they use ganja is that a thought can quickly turn into another, which branches out into many more – which can turn into an entire web of thoughts and stories that started out from just a single idea.
For many, this is the crux of the creative process, giving way to new ideas, music and art. However, for others, it can be the beginning of a long and very uncomfortable experience.
Marijuana hacks the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system is the naturally occurring system of cannabinoids inside the human body. So, as you can imagine, using marijuana is basically a way to hijack that system.
The introduction of external cannabinoids into an endocannabinoid system has its effects all over the brain and the body. Naturally, the state of one’s endocannabinoid system has a huge say in what is going to happen after introducing cannabinoids that come from an external source.
Researchers have found that a dysfunctional cannabinoid system can be the reason for a myriad of health problems, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety being just two.
A simple way of explaining it would be that a lack of endocannabinoids can actually be the reason for anxiety. This is why the introduction of cannabinoids can actually relieve anxiety for some people. They are nourishing the brain and body with something that it is not correctly producing.
Having said that, it is likely that too many cannabinoids being present in the brain can induce a state of anxiety. For infrequent users who might only be using recreationally, this could be exactly the case.
Introducing cannabinoids into a perfectly functioning endocannabinoid system could throw everything out of balance, putting the person in a state of panic and stress. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what state your endocannabinoid system is in. We didn’t even know that humans had an endocannabinoid system until the 60s, and so much of it has remained a mystery until now. It is almost impossible for regular doctors to identify a dysfunctional endocannabinoid system, despite knowing that it is one of the body’s most important regulatory systems.
How to avoid a paranoid experience
If you still want to experience some of the health benefits of marijuana without stepping into a very uncomfortable and paranoid experience, I do have some advice.
Most of my advice is largely to do with dosages and the strain of marijuana being used. However, you can also manipulate your experience by changing your environment and even your attitude. Some people refer to this as the set and setting of your marijuana experience.
To start with, if you find yourself prone to experiencing social paranoia, don’t use in a public place. A lot of the time that people experience a paranoid episode, the thoughts are generally about getting caught or getting in trouble. You can reduce this a lot by using marijuana somewhere that you feel safe and comfortable. Your home is a perfect example – or in the home of a friend. But smoking up in the parking lot after work could arouse many fears about getting caught by police or your boss.
Another way to reduce social paranoia is to choose a strain higher in CBD. Avoid strains that contain very high levels of THC. In the end, THC is what is encouraging that crazy web of thoughts to take place. On the other hand, CBD is a natural mood enhancer (without being psychoactive) and can induce extremely relaxing effects. A strain that contains an appropriate balance of the two means you can have the best of both worlds. Next time you step into a dispensary, ask for a strain that has an equal balance between cannabinoids.
On the topic of strains, choosing between indica and sativa can also be really important. Indica strains tend to induce a more sedative physical effect which is much more conducive to relaxation. Sativa strains tend to deliver something more energetic, getting the heart and the body pumping. It is also said that sativa strains encourage more of the cerebral high that psychonauts love. For that reason I recommend indica heavy strains to those who are more susceptible to experiencing social paranoia.
Finally, it’s time to talk about dosages. Sometimes, a freak out is simply a symptom of greening out. Even regular cannabis users can start to feel edgy if they smoke too much, let alone if you’re new to using marijuana. So my advice is to avoid edibles when it comes to first time experiences.
The edible experience is much more psychedelic than when herb is smoked and it lasts much longer. It is also really easy to misjudge dosages when it comes to edibles. On the other hand, smoking takes effect basically immediately. This means that the user has more control over how much they are consuming in a moment to moment basis. The smoking/vaping experience is also usually over within a matter of a couple of hours, which can’t be said of the edible experience.
Go easy on dosages if you are anxiety prone. What you might find is that in low dosages, cannabis can be extremely relaxing.
What to do in the case of social paranoia
Whatever you do, don’t call 911 if you find yourself experiencing a paranoid episode. There’s nothing the hospital can do for you to decrease the effects of THC and you’ll have to spend the rest of your weed journey in four white walls. Plus, when all of your friends find out about it you’ll be the laughing stock of your smoking circle.
After grounding yourself a little bit, you will realise that you let your imagination get the better of you for a moment. So what can you do to bring yourself back to planet earth?
Could there be a better suggestion? Long, deep breaths are a good way to relax and remain tranquil. Focusing on the breath also takes a lot of attention away from the thoughts themselves, giving them a chance to dissipate. In a state of anxiety people are prone to holding their breath, which just makes the heart beat faster and cause more anxiety. Profound breathing is one of the best ways to relieve stress.
Try having a cold shower.
It is a good way to excite the senses in the body and take some attention away from terrifying and distracting thoughts. Plus, it gives you time to be alone from your friends if you are feeling paranoid about them.
Play some relaxing music.
It is hard to feel stressed out or as though the police are coming if you are just sitting down enjoying some Beethoven.That’s my own personal music choice when things are getting rough!
Excite your physical senses by eating something that you love to eat when you have the munchies. Whether you love to eat chocolate or baked potatoes, you’ll be surprised how comforting it is to eat in a moment of stress.
Go for a walk.
Exercise is also a really good way to get out of the mind (which is where your paranoia exists) and into the body. Getting the blood flowing is a great way to relax, and everybody knows how relaxed they feel after a good exercise session. Of course, don’t go walking around in places you don’t know because it’s probably much easier to get lost when you’re high!
You might be able to tell that all of these examples are about reminding yourself that you are perfectly OK. If you can go for a walk or stand under a cold shower, then you are absolutely not dying and nothing bad is happening. All of these recommendations are ways to distract yourself from the nightmarish thoughts that are taking place in your mind but aren’t actually real.