I remember my first time smoking weed. I was lingering outside of a party with some high school friends when one of them whipped out a one hitter that was disguised as a cigarette. He loaded it with a pinch of what I imagine was crappy weed and passed it around our circle. Apprehensive, I took an abrupt drag, just barely inhaling the smoke into my lungs, and passed it on.
We decided to head home some minutes later, so I hopped into the passenger seat of his car and prepared for a mere 20-minute journey. That was when the weed kicked in. We were on the freeway, and time seemed to stop altogether. I repeatedly checked the clock, aghast when the digital numbers stayed in place no matter how long I stared. My friends knew I was panicking. I kept asking them when it would end.
My friend delivered us back to his home, where I rushed past his mom and wandered into the shower. That was the longest rinse of my life, and only in the morning did I feel somewhat normal again. I was afraid of weed for years after that: I knew that it made me anxious, so I avoided it altogether.
Then, nearly 10 years later, when a few states began toying with legalization and weed earned a reputation as something of a panacea, I gave it another try. I would smoke it on the occasional hangover day or when I went camping with friends, but I rarely kept it around my apartment. The effects were hit or miss.
The tipping point was when I started partying less. I moved in with my girlfriend, who had previously been more of a weed smoker than I ever was, and we slowly began replacing our boozy nights out with hazy nights in. Through a cloudy series of events, we eventually developed into nightly smokers.
Only recently, though, have we begun to question the mindlessness of our constant ritualistic smoking. In hindsight, while we both had anxiety and depression before developing relationships with marijuana, being high on a nightly basis has become something that, we worry, could at least be contributing to our combined miserable mental health.
Now, while many anecdotes and studies perpetuate the notion that cannabis can be used to alleviate anxiety and depression, anyone familiar with weed knows that it can make you anxious — that was the first thing I ever learned about it. When some people smoke cannabis, it launches their sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, raising their heart rate and elevating their cortisol levels, which can cause a momentary burst of anxiety, like the one I experienced during my car ride home on that fateful night almost a decade ago.
What I experience nowadays, though, is less an immediate discharge of anxiety directly after smoking, and more of a chronic anxiety and depression that I’m wondering if my weed use may be at least somewhat to blame for. This is a familiar crisis among stoners, something a former weed smoker interviewed by VICE describes well:
“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.”
What seems to happen to some of us stoners is that we smoke weed to curb the anxiety and depression that we already have, but then end up simply numbing ourselves while the actual causes of our ailments get lost in the smoke. Since my judgment is clouded, though, I reached out to several experts for more about the relationship between anxiety, depression and marijuana.
“What you’re asking is a bit of a ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ question,” says anxiety specialist Kevin Foss, founder of the California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center. “I’d say, generally speaking, [cannabis] would be more of an exacerbate to anxiety and depression, rather than a cause unto itself.”
“As you know,” Foss continues, “many anxiety and depression sufferers seek out marijuana use, ‘medically’ or otherwise, as a solution to their depression and anxiety. Research shows, and my clients report, short-term relief from their anxiety, as it lowers their subjective experience of the fight-or-flight response. They then report THC to be the solution to their anxiety. However, the desired effects of THC tend to fade over time, resulting in several issues: Users can habituate to their amount of THC needed for a desired result, thereby requiring more to get the same results, just as in the case of alcohol use. Over time, users report a behavioral dependency on marijuana, as they, in a sense, smoke themselves into a corner. They find their marijuana use reduces their anxiety, however the accompanying lethargy depletes their motivation, thereby sapping the energy and follow through for the initial task.”
This propensity for increasing your dosage of THC over time can certainly be problematic, as higher levels of cannabinoids are associated with higher levels of anxiety, a phenomenon confirmed to me by psychologist Susan Stoner (yes, really), who has reviewed much of the scientific literature on cannabis and its effects on mental health. “Switch to a higher CBD and lower THC strain to see if that causes a change,” she suggests, explaining that this might help you gauge whether your current dosing is contributing to your poor mental space. “The thing to keep in mind with THC is, more is not always better.” Stoner also mentions that THC levels in marijuana have increased dramatically in recent years, which could contribute to more anxious stoners in general.
The decreased motivation that Foss mentions feels accurate. When I look back on my own cannabis consumption, I can see a clear connection between smoking on a nightly basis and watching copious amounts of YouTube, rather than exercising or socializing — things that may have otherwise helped my mental health. “This cycle often exacerbates depression, as the user can feel more helpless to overcome their anxiety and successfully face life struggles,” Foss adds. “I write this knowing someone will read the article and say they smoke weed every day and are incredibly productive, and they probably are. Of course, there are people who survive on fast food and liquor, too, but no one is making them a role model.”
Harkening back to his chicken-or-egg example, Foss suggests again that forming a relationship with weed can prevent people who already have anxiety from addressing its source. “It reduces anxiety in the short-term,” he explains. “But it’s not helping the user to effectively face their fears. Effective anxiety treatment requires the individual to face their fears for an extended period of time and habituate to their anxiety, which is a naturally occurring result of exposure therapy. Marijuana may help the user face anxiety-provoking situations, but it prevents them from feeling the anxiety, therefore preventing the habituation process. When they stop using THC, they say it makes them more anxious, but really, they’re just feeling their natural level of anxiety, which often drives them back to self-medication.”
Stoner reiterates this point. “As a psychologist, I have concerns about people who use substances to suppress and turn off their feelings and kind of numb out,” she says. “Ultimately, you’re never really learning to handle these things without substances.”
Because of this, as Foss already hinted at, quitting weed after using it for long periods of time can be incredibly difficult. Licensed clinical social worker Sherry Gaba, founder of Wake Up Recovery and author of Infinite Recovery: 6 Steps of Mindfulness, Positive Thinking and the Law of Attraction to Break Free from Addiction explains, “Smoking cannabis can cause anxiety for all sorts of reasons — namely, if you’re detoxing and no longer smoking, all of the feelings that have been numbed by smoking can come to the surface, causing all sorts of emotions, including depression, anxiety, anger and unresolved trauma.”
“If a user were to stop,” says Foss, “they should know that they’ll feel anxious, but anxiety is temporary and survivable without marijuana. Given time and determination, they can face their fears without the use of marijuana. Will it ‘totally improve your mental well-being?’ Yes and no. Stopping marijuana as self-medication will show you how much anxiety and depression you naturally have, and this offers a starting point to effectively facing it and improving one’s mental well-being.”
So, is weed the cause of my chronic anxiety and depression? Perhaps not directly, but it seems pretty clear that my dependence on it isn’t helping. Almost anything can be used as a means to hide from your inner demons, and weed seems to have taken on that role in my life — something my first ever experience with it eerily foreshadowed.
In which case, if I want to feel better, I suppose I should at least try to take my own advice, and curb my weed intake — like, for really reals this time.