Have you ever been extremely high when suddenly, you heard a noise nearby? Maybe it’s the cops getting ready to burst into your house and arrest you. Next thing you know, you’ll be spending three years in the state penitentiary on a possession charge. Oh wait… it was just your cat knocking over a bottle.
If you’ve ever gone through this scenario (or something similar), you’re not alone. In some cases, and depending on the marijuana strain, you can feel a sense of paranoia when high. It is an unusual situation because weed is also capable of treating anxiety. In this article, we determine what paranoia is and how cannabis can trigger it in specific individuals. Also, we’ll look at the “strange” breed of people with a mutant gene which makes them inherently less anxious.
What is Paranoia?
The process of paranoid thinking involves believing that you are being threatened or are in danger of harm, even if there is no evidence to back up this assertion. If you’re paranoid, you will think that the motives of others are suspicious without any particular reasoning behind it. Incredibly, up to half of the population have paranoid thoughts at least once a month, so it is far from abnormal behavior.
Here are some examples of paranoid thinking:
- A belief that others are talking about you.
- Thinking that there is someone following you.
- Believing that people are judging or laughing at you.
- Thinking that there is a plot to harm or kill you.
How Can Marijuana Make Me Paranoid?
In simple terms, weed activates the areas of your brain that are related to fear and emotion. According to a study at the University of Western Ontario, the cannabinoids in marijuana affect the ‘amygdala’, which is otherwise known as the fight or flight center of the brain. Our amygdala is constantly monitoring everything we see and do to ensure we are protected from dangerous situations. Moreover, the amygdala learns what to fear and also how to act when faced with these fears.
As far as cannabinoids go, THC is the ‘guilty’ party. Cannabinoids bind to receptors in the brain, and many of them are focused in the amygdala. When THC acts on the amygdala, it modifies neural communication. Sometimes this results in a reduction in anxiety, but in other cases, it can actually increase paranoia. Also, THC can potentially overexcite our neural pathways, resulting in both paranoia and anxiety. It is especially prevalent in people who are new to cannabis.
In a 2015 study by Freeman et al., researchers gave participants large doses of THC in the form of an injection and measured their paranoid thinking using a variety of methods. They included an interview, surveys, a virtual reality task, and a social situation. Those who used the THC showed a significantly greater level of paranoid thoughts when high, than did the individuals who received a placebo.
Moreover, Dr. Ruben Baler of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has explained how weed impacts our endocannabinoid system (ECS), and could result in anxiety or paranoia that didn’t previously exist. According to him, the ECS “optimizes the brain between feelings of excitation and inhibition”. Suddenly, fear stimuli that we can normally handle becomes a problem because the brain’s fight or flight response is disrupted.
Other studies on rats have also uncovered clues as to why weed makes some people paranoid. In one study, a team of scientists used rats that were trained to be afraid of specific smells. The team blocked the CB1 receptors found in the amygdala of the rats, and discovered that the rodents did not respond to the scents they were supposed to fear. Once the rats received synthetic THC that unblocked the receptors, though, they were once again afraid of the smells.
Ultimately, the human body contains receptor sites that can be filled with cannabinoids from marijuana. These sites are filled by naturally produced endocannabinoids that act similarly to weed compounds, and researchers have found that shortages of these endocannabinoids exist in the brains of people who were exposed to excessive levels of trauma and stress. This explains why THC can relax certain individuals.
Your Marijuana Experience Can be Dictated by Pre-Existing Anxiety
In a 2009 review of studies that focused on cannabis and anxiety, researchers determined that regular weed users have higher anxiety levels than non-users. It also found that a significant percentage of the subjects had developed anxiety disorders prior to their first symptoms of marijuana dependence. In other words, anxious individuals were using weed to combat their anxiety, which means it wasn’t necessarily the cannabis that caused the problem. Risk factors include:
- Genetic Vulnerability
- Abstinence States
- Basal Anxiety Levels
- Frequency of Use
- Set and Setting
As an aside, an estimated 20% of American adults have an unusual gene mutation that makes them less vulnerable to anxiety disorders. Individuals with this genetic mutation produce higher levels of anandamide, also known as the ‘bliss molecule’, in their brains. Anandamide has been described as ‘our own natural marijuana,’ and those who are fortunate enough to have this mutation are less likely to consume marijuana or hard drugs. This is simply because they don’t need the calming effect provided by these drugs.
If you have this gene, you produce less FAAH, which is an enzyme that deactivates anandamide. In fact, you’re likely to experience a decrease in happiness should you use weed when compared to people with the normal FAAH gene, who find it pleasurable.
Alleviate the Effects With Proper THC Dosage
As you know, the effects of weed vary from person to person and depend on numerous factors including dosage and form of preparation (edibles, vapes, joints, and so on). Cannabinoids, especially THC, have what is known as a biphasic effect which basically means that low and high doses could have opposite effects on users. This is why you may feel relaxed with a low dose, but paranoid with a higher dose. As a result, physicians recommend that you start using weed via self-titration, which is a fancy term for starting with a small dose and gradually increasing to see how your body reacts.
Therefore, you should take note of the THC content of any strain you choose, along with the THC to CBD ratio. This is crucial because CBD is capable of counteracting the paranoia caused by THC. If you use the right dose of THC, you should experience the following:
- Improved appetite.
- Pain relief.
- An increase in creativity,
- Elevated mood, euphoria and a sense of calm.
If you use too high a dose, though, the following is likely to happen:
- Increased sensitivity to pain.
Final Thoughts on Weed & Paranoia
If you’re concerned about weed causing paranoia, choose a moderate strength strain, preferably one with over 5% CBD. Also, always be aware of ‘set and setting’ because your mindset and location can have a significant impact on how cannabis affects you. For instance, smoking in a room full of strangers could heighten any social awkwardness you feel. In contrast, smoking a joint at home in a safe and relaxed environment should help you get the most out of the experience.
If you’ve been using weed for a considerable period, try and kick it to the curb for a few months. Marijuana-induced anxiety can become a pattern for certain users, so avoiding it for a while should help you steer clear of this problem. Finally, reduce your dose! As weed is nontoxic, it is normal for people to use far more than they need. If you do this too often, though, you’ll experience ‘receptor down-regulation,’ which is another way of saying your tolerance to weed increases. It’s also a fact that high doses increase the likelihood of experiencing deleterious side effects such as paranoia. At the end of the day weed should ease your anxiety – if it has the opposite effect, you need to find out why and solve the issue as soon as possible.