Marijuana and Panic Attacks: How Are They Related?

The relationship between marijuana and panic attacks has been known for decades. Let's see what the experts say about it.
Marijuana and Panic Attacks: How Are They Related?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 16 March, 2023

Marijuana or cannabis is one of the most widely used recreational drugs around the world. It has had a particular acceptance in society because, supposedly, its side effects are barely perceptible in contrast to those of other drugs. This statement is contrary to what we know about its intake, and one of the examples is found in the relationship between marijuana and panic attacks.

The association between marijuana and panic attacks is by no means new. Already during the 1980s, the first studies appeared confirming the tendency of some people to manifest panic after consuming cannabis. Little is known about this relationship among consumers today, so we want to take a look at what scientists know about it.

The relationship between marijuana and panic attacks

Marijuana and panic attacks share common mechanisms.
With the increase in the recreational use of marijuana, there has been evidence of a higher incidence of panic attacks.

Current collective evidence suggests that heavy cannabis use habits (such as dependence) are associated with an increased risk of panic attacks. Experts warn that the risk is evident both in young people and in adults, and increases when other variables such as nicotine intake are added. The relationship is known to be much stronger in people who’ve had panic attacks in the past.

Why marijuana can trigger panic attacks isn’t well understood. The different species of cannabis integrate more than 500 documented phytochemicals, and among these are more than 140 cannabinoids that are exclusive to these species. The most important psychoactive compound, or at least the one that has received the most attention from scientists, is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

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The compound was first isolated in 1964 and has been identified as being responsible for psychoactive reactions. THC has very powerful anxiogenic properties, although these are contrasted with the anxiolytic properties of cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD is the main non-psychotomimetic compound in cannabis. Because of this, and as experts indicate, the compound may have a protective effect against certain negative psychological effects of THC.

Perhaps this is why marijuana panic attacks only manifest in cases of acute consumption, as is the case with dependence. Researchers note that both interact with the endocannabinoid system.

This system operates in the modulation of synaptic transmission involved in the management of emotional states, cognition, and responses to stress. The symptoms that can appear in these contexts are the following:

  • Increased sweating
  • Tremors in the muscles of the extremities
  • A sudden feeling of doom
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain and irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting
  • An intense feeling of fear
  • Tingling or numbness if the skin
  • A need to leave the place where you are to feel safe

In addition to panic attacks, acute marijuana use has also been linked to episodes of psychosis and depression. Again, the relationship is stronger in people who’ve experienced seizures in the past and who maintain a regular intake of the drug.

How to overcome a cannabis panic attack

Marijuana and panic attacks are related
The best decision once the problem with cannabis use has been identified is to see a mental health professional.

Panic attacks aren’t in and of themselves dangerous for an individual’s integrity. Although the symptoms point to imminent death, it’s really just a temporary overreaction to something that doesn’t present any real danger. A typical panic attack usually lasts between 5 and 10 minutes, and its intensity is highly variable.

When a person in these circumstances experiences a panic attack, they may think it’s an overdose or a heart attack. The symptoms are transient, and some techniques can help deal with them while they go away.

For example, take deep breaths, close your eyes and count to 20 slowly in series, focus on a specific object in the room, smell something calming (like lavender), repeat a mantra in your head, go for a walk, and tense up large and small muscle groups and then relax them.

Apart from all this, the important thing is to implement habits in order to prevent the attacks from happening again. The most important of all is to reduce the intake of marijuana. If possible, avoid its consumption completely. This is something that people who’ve had multiple panic attacks through this pathway and who suffer from various mental disorders must do.

Going from occasional to recurring use is very easy, and often those who do it aren’t inclined to admit that they’re developing a dependency. In addition to the aforementioned psychosis and depression, regular consumption is also associated with memory problems, attention problems, coordination and balance problems, and behavioral changes. There are many consequences that are largely ignored by those who consume marijuana.

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Los contenidos de esta publicación se redactan solo con fines informativos. En ningún momento pueden servir para facilitar o sustituir diagnósticos, tratamientos o recomentaciones provenientes de un profesional. Consulta con tu especialista de confianza ante cualquier duda y busca su aprobación antes de iniciar o someterse a cualquier procedimiento.