The kind of high you experience depends on a whole bunch of thing The largest study of the effects of the main ingredient of cannabis has shown definitively that it can cause short-term paranoia. The Oxford-led research also, for the first time, identifies psychological factors that can lead to feelings of paranoia in people who take cannabis. CBD won't cause you to feel paranoid, as it binds to receptors in your body rather than in your brain. Researchers are finding it may be able to counteract paranoia, especially when it's a result of THC. CBD can actually "quiet down" your cannabinoid receptors, while THC can cause hyperactivity which can lead to paranoia.
Why Pot Makes You Paranoid—but Mellows Out Your Buddies
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.
Alexa is a Denver-based contributor who covers all things lifestyle, wellness, travel, home, and beauty. When she’s not writing, you can find her sweating it out at boxing or Pilates, planning her next travel adventure, or drinking red wine.
How cannabis causes paranoia
The largest study of the effects of the main ingredient of cannabis has shown definitively that it can cause short-term paranoia. The Oxford-led research also, for the first time, identifies psychological factors that can lead to feelings of paranoia in people who take cannabis.
The research team, led by Professor Daniel Freeman, found that worrying, low self-esteem, anxiety and experiencing a range of unsettling changes in perceptions most likely led to the feelings of paranoia.
‘The study very convincingly shows that cannabis can cause short-term paranoia in some people,’ says Professor Freeman. ‘But more importantly it shines a light on the way our mind encourages paranoia. Paranoia is likely to occur when we are worried, think negatively about ourselves, and experience unsettling changes in our perceptions.’
The study, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), is the most in-depth investigation ever of the paranoia-inducing effects of the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol). Participants were given a range of tests of excessive suspiciousness, including real-life social situations, a virtual reality simulation, self-report questionnaires and clinical interviews.
Paranoia is excessive thinking that other people are trying to harm us. Many people have a few paranoid thoughts, and a few people have many paranoid thoughts
Professor Daniel Freeman
All of those who took part had reported mistrustful thinking in their day to day lives. This is not an unusual sample as approximately half the population report similar paranoid type thoughts occurring in the past month. The scientists tested 121 participants between the ages of 21 and 50, all of whom had taken cannabis at least once before. None of the participants had a history of mental illness and all were screened to rule out relevant health conditions.
Two thirds of the participants were injected with the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis and one-third were injected with a placebo. The dose was equivalent to a strong joint. The advantage of injection was that it reduces variability across participants in how much THC is in the bloodstream during testing, compared to oral or inhalation administration routes. In the study participants, the THC had effects for 90 minutes.
The study found that the main ingredient of cannabis increased the likelihood of paranoia occurring. Half the participants had paranoid thoughts with THC, and 30% with placebo. That is, 1 in 5 participants had an increase in paranoia directly attributable to the THC. The paranoia declined as the drug left the blood stream.
The drug also caused a range of other psychological effects: anxiety; worry; lowered mood; negative thoughts about the self; various changes in perception such as sounds being louder than normal and colours brighter; thoughts echoing; altered perception of time, and poorer short-term memory.
The Oxford researchers used a sophisticated statistical analysis which indicated that it was likely that the increase in the negative feelings and the perceptual changes led to the increase in paranoia. There was no indication that the reductions in short-term memory caused the increase in paranoia.
Professor Daniel Freeman of the Department of Psychiatry explains: ‘Paranoia is excessive thinking that other people are trying to harm us. It’s very common because in our day-to-day lives we have to weigh up whether to trust or mistrust, and when we get it wrong – that’s paranoia. Many people have a few paranoid thoughts, and a few people have many paranoid thoughts.’
The researchers believe the study reinforces the idea that paranoia arises from multiple causes.
‘The study identifies a number of highly plausible ways in which our mind promotes paranoid fears. Worry skews our view of the world and makes us focus on perceived threat,’ says Professor Freeman. ‘Thinking we are inferior means we feel vulnerable to harm. Just small differences in our perception can make us feel that something strange and even frightening is going on.’
He adds: ‘The study provides a great deal more information about the immediate effects of cannabis, but it did not investigate clinically severe disorder. The results don’t necessarily have any implications for policing, the criminal justice system, or legislation. It tells us about the little discussed paranoid-type fears that run through the minds of so many people from time to time. The implication is that reducing time spent ruminating, being more confident in ourselves, and not catastrophizing when unusual perceptual disturbances occur will in all likelihood lessen paranoia.’
The study is reported in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin. As well as funding from the MRC, it also received support from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.
Does CBD Make You Paranoid?
It’s not uncommon to experience paranoia when consuming THC, but does CBD have the same effect? I set out to uncover the answer & have first-hand experience to share with you:
CBD won’t cause you to feel paranoid, as it binds to receptors in your body rather than in your brain. Researchers are finding it may be able to counteract paranoia, especially when it’s a result of THC. CBD can actually “quiet down” your cannabinoid receptors, while THC can cause hyperactivity which can lead to paranoia.
THC Hits The Brain, CBD Hits The Body
Although you probably already know how CBD is much different than THC, did you know it’s received by your body in an entirely different way?
THC is known to bind to the CB1 cannabinoid receptors located in your brain. Because of the location & function of these receptors, it can cause you to feel paranoid or anxious due to “hyperactivity” caused by too much THC! Your receptors are firing off with large amounts of THC & therefore it can bring on some intense effects.
CBD, on the other hand, binds mainly to CB2 receptors that are located throughout your body & largely in your immune system. Instead of being received by your brain, it’s received in the body. This also explains CBD’s promising results when it comes to inflammation & autoimmune conditions.
This is largely why CBD is not going to make you paranoid, where THC can. But, what about when CBD is used alongside THC in something like a Full Spectrum CBD Oil?
Will Full-Spectrum CBD Be Different?
An important factor in not feeling paranoid with THC is the amount you consume. When it comes to Full spectrum CBD, we are talking about a limit of 0.3% THC maximum. So, not a lot.
We still recommend Full Spectrum to those who’ve had previous negative experiences with THC. In all likelihood, the paranoia was a result of taking one too many gummies or puffs – we’ve all been there at one point. But, understanding that there is much less THC in these products than gummies you’d get from a dispensary in Colorado!
Also, we must understand the effect CBD has on THC & paranoia.
Using CBD Alongside THC
One of the biggest reasons people are using CBD today is to calm down anxious thoughts/relieving stress. So, it clearly has a natural calming effect. This especially comes into play when alongside THC.
Various studies including a 2019 controlled trial published to the National Library of Medicine showed that CBD has the ability to reduce the negative side effects of THC! Usually being paranoia & anxiety. CBD has the potential to help “calm” those cannabinoid receptors down & help your nervous system return to normal!
We advise our friends who enjoy THC to always have some CBD on hand! As it can really come in handy when you’re feeling like you just might never feel normal again.
THC can certainly be intense, but there are reasons you shouldn’t count it out completely.
Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of THC
We would tell anyone, especially newcomers, to be mindful about how much THC you are consuming. Because although you can’t overdose or become addicted to THC (physically), you certainly can reach a point of “too much”. Which can come with an existential crisis, an endless case of the munchies, & for some, nausea.
But, fear not! THC can be extremely beneficial when used correctly. As you may or may not know, it specifically empowers CBD so you can feel better results at lower doses! Having just a little bit of THC makes the CBD work much better & more consistently than when you take it away.
We recommend Full Spectrum as a first-choice for most everyone. The cases for not taking Full Spectrum CBD are things like drug testing for work or hypersensitivity to THC. As for some, even that little 0.3% is just too much. But, for most, choosing Full Spectrum is the best bet to finding the most relief.
CBD isn’t going to make you paranoid. It acts much differently than THC & delivers calming effects that are received by your body, not your brain.
This doesn’t mean it won’t help with anxious thoughts/etc. As we know, CBD has been showing promise in these areas & works more so with the Central Nervous & Endocannabinoid systems to help you remain calm.
So, don’t be afraid to give it a try! It usually comes with a ton of benefits without any sort of negative effects.