Weed and anxiety have always been entwined for me. My experience of getting high amounts to an unpleasantly increased heart-rate, imagining that all my friends secretly think I'm a cunt and berating myself via a cacophony of second-person internal monologues. It took me a bizarrely long time to realise this was not something I enjoyed, but when I eventually did, learning to say no when passed a spliff became the greatest gift I ever gave myself.
Since I never enjoyed weed in the first place, giving it up wasn’t difficult. But many weed users experience a more conflicted relationship with the drug and their anxiety. Weed use can become a symptom, cure and underlying condition all rolled into one. Using it might worsen your anxiety – in a larger sense – but allow you to feel better in the short-term. This creates a vicious circle in which you're using a substance to alleviate the symptoms it causes.
WHAT DO USERS THINK?
Amy, 27, a former weed smoker who lives with anxiety, says, "Smoking weed felt like it was positively contributing to my life at the time – it made me less anxious and more at ease about doing things. But actually it was completely destructive because, without it, I would be a complete panicked mess. If I hadn't used weed, I would have recovered from my severe anxiety period much quicker. Instead, it took me two-and-a-half years."
It can be difficult to tell whether weed use causes anxiety, or simply exacerbates what was there already. Chris, 22, who developed a panic disorder in his teens after smoking weed habitually, says, "In hindsight, I had always been an overthinking teenager – it's just how my mind works, and I was able to cope with that in the long-term. Smoking weed definitely made that overthinking worse, though, and more difficult to control. It made me more irrational and irritable."
Did he stop smoking once his anxiety got bad? "When I developed a panic disorder I wouldn't even be around people smoking weed because it gave me an anxiety attack. I stayed clear of it when stuff got serious."
Is this something that helped his anxiety? "It helped because it meant there was no possibility of getting high, which was what prompted my anxiety attacks. But it didn’t help in the sense that it was a fight-or-flight response. I would literally have panic attacks just from smelling weed, which was obviously irrational."
I spoke to Nick Hickmott, Team Leader at drugs and alcohol charity Addaction. "Yes, weed will affect your anxiety," he says. "Cannabis interacts with receptors in your brain, so it follows that it will affect your mood and mental health. The question is whether the effect will be positive or negative for the user."
THE TYPE OF WEED MAKES A DIFFERENCE
It's difficult to talk about "weed" in general terms, given the wide variety in strains and strength. The stronger the cannabis you’re smoking, the more likely you are to experience adverse side effects. THC has been implicated in causing both anxiety and psychosis, whereas there is evidence to suggest that CBD (the other active chemical in cannabis) can actively help treat or prevent either mental illness. The problem is that the cannabis sold in the UK is increasingly engineered to be high in THC and low in CBD.
Nick confirms: "No two cannabis plants are the same, which means that effects will vary – sometimes this could be so subtle you might not notice; at other times you may feel like you’ve taken a completely different drug to what you were using previously. Some people say that weed can help people feel less anxious and more relaxed. Others, particularly people who are new to it, tell us it causes anxiety and in some cases panic attacks and paranoia."
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU'RE WORRIED ABOUT IT?
What advice does Nick have for people who are worried about how weed is impacting their anxiety? "Talk to a doctor about anxiety and think about other proven remedies, like exercise, mindfulness or distraction techniques, rather than experimenting with cannabis," he says. "If you do choose to use, we'd advise not using when you’re feeling unsettled or anxious already."
When buying weed in an unregulated market, it can be difficult to ascertain the exact make-up of what you’re getting. But if you want to continue smoking weed while living with anxiety, trying to smoke weed (or, even better, hash) that's lower in THC might be a good idea. Reducing your usage might also help. Talking about whether or not "weed" is bad for anxiety is like talking about whether "alcohol" is, without recognising there’s a difference between sipping a pint of lager and downing a bottle of vodka.
That said, as James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, told VICE, "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."
If weed is consistently making you feel anxious, it might be worth thinking about giving it up altogether.