Cannabis and Panic Attacks

Cannabis and Panic Attacks

One of the paradoxes of cannabis is that it is a substance that can relax the mind and relieve stress while simultaneously triggering a panic attack. But what is a panic attack?
Imagine that you are smoking. You feel your heart beating faster and faster, your head lightens, and you begin to break out in a cold sweat. Your skin pales, your fingertips tingle, and the tingling spreads throughout your arm, all the way down to your legs and into your feet.
This is only the physical aspect; then the mind takes over.
If you have ever experienced these sensations, it is very likely that you have had a panic attack. Basically, your body thinks it is suffering damage when it is not. This is caused by cannabinoids interacting with our brain. 

Panic attack causes

When we smoke, we seek the classic effects of relaxation and stress relief. Cannabinoids interact with our brain, sending signals all over the body, giving us that feeling of lightness. So how can we achieve the opposite effect with the same substance? A very important aspect is the type of strain: sativa strains tend to activate the brain, stimulating creativity and consequently giving space to millions of thoughts, which may not always be positive. Indica strains, on the other hand, are more “nocturnal” , slowing down the mind and relaxing the body. But the key aspect to consider is the dosage.

As you can imagine, if you take an excessively high dosage, you might slowly go from feeling lightheaded to feeling anxious and then completely panicked. This feeling is also called “flight or fight”, a primal reaction of our brain to an imminent threat, even if the threat actually does not exist. As mentioned before, during a panic attack, our body is convinced that it is damaged even when it is not. 

Another important aspect is the inhalation method: smoking or vaping can change a lot. With combustion, part of the active ingredients are dispersed in the smoke, while in the case of the vaporizer, the plant becomes “vaporized” and we inhale 100% of it, so nothing is lost. It is logical to think that the effect of vaping is decidedly stronger than that of combustion and that it can trigger a panic attack more easily. 

Another aspect to take into consideration is your own psychological situation. If you are serene and happy, even the most powerful cannabis is unlikely to trigger a panic attack, while if you already have dark thoughts, worries, or simply suffer from anxiety, you could be subject to high risk of panic attack incurrence.

How to recognize a panic attack

You have just smoked, instead of feeling relaxed and sleepy you feel short of breath, you sweat, but you are cold, your heart begins to beat faster than normal. You can hardly breathe anymore, your fingers and toes start to tingle, you are convinced that you will have a heart attack soon, your thoughts are getting louder and more incomprehensible, you are not thinking, you feel faint. Well you’re having a panic attack.
There are no typical symptoms; the experience varies from person to person, but we can recognize recurring characteristics, which are: 

  • Racing heartbeat
    • Tunnel vision
    • Sweat or chills
    • Chest pains
    • Tingling or numbness in the extremities
    • Weakness and dizziness
    • Trouble breathing

Your body is fine, it’s all triggered by your mind. Even if it seems impossible, the only way to get over a panic attack is to be aware of it. Thinking “ok, I’m having a panic attack, it’s nothing life threatening, I just need to calm down”. Of course, this technique can work if there isn’t really a reason to have anxiety, as early said, the personal psychological component is very important: smoking cannabis can amplify pre-existing problems.

How to stop a panic attack

The thing to remember is that a panic attack can’t hurt you, even if your head tells you you’re going to have a heart attack or suffocate. There have been no cases of weed overdose in history, and there never will be. Become aware of what is happening and remember that it is only temporary. If anxiety persists, you can try to eat or drink something: the effects of smoked cannabis last less than those of ingested cannabis. 

The environmental aspects are also important. As cannabis is often used in socializing, many people who suffer from panic attacks feed their worries with the belief that they are ruining the moment for the people who are with them. It can help in these cases to get away from eyes that we consider indiscreet, even for a short time, to catch your breath in private.

You can also try the 3-4-5 breathing technique, which is also useful for falling asleep. Of course, in situations like the ones we are describing, stopping to think of a breathing technique is not easy, but even just concentrating on trying it can calm us down. The technique is very simple: you have to inhale for 3 seconds, as if you want to inflate a balloon in your lungs, hold your breath for 4 seconds, and exhale slowly for 5 seconds. If necessary, you can extend the time to 4-5-6 seconds or 5-6-7 seconds. 

Another useful technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 sense technique. A small exercise that helps us divert attention from the crisis we are experiencing. 

It consists of: 

  • naming 5 things we see, 
  • 4 things we hear, 
  • 3 things you can touch, 
  • 2 things you can smell, 
  • and 1 thing you can taste

Slightly more complex than the breathing technique but just as, if not more, effective.
More simply, get out of mind that everyone hates you, because nobody does, and ask for help.

The differences between THC and CBD

If decreasing your dose or switching to indica isn’t enough, then we recommend trying cannabidiol (CBD). Numerous studies show that CBD helps fight anxiety in general and can also relieve symptoms of social anxiety, or PTSD. It also helps to slow the heart rate and to regulate breathing. In conclusion, it is clear that the higher the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the higher the risk of having a panic attack. CBD can definitely calm these symptoms. However, let’s always remember that a good mental state is the basis of a good smoke and that nothing can solve our problems if not ourselves, perhaps with the help of a professional.

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