Cannabis doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, and even if you’re a seasoned consumer, you might not have the same reaction every time you use it.
Sometimes it might work exactly as you intended, whether you’re using it to ease mental health symptoms or stimulate your appetite. But other times, it may increase feelings of stress and anxiety, especially if you’re using a product high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
Cannabis-induced anxiety might show up as a panic attack in some cases, which can result in:
- sweating or shaking
- a sudden feeling of doom you can’t explain
- worries about others watching or judging you
- racing heartbeat
- trouble breathing
- intense feelings of fear
- chest pain or choking sensations
- stomach pain or nausea
- numbness, tingling, or chills
- a sense of detachment from reality or your body
It’s also common to worry about dying or losing control. Though these feelings can be frightening, they’re pretty normal with panic attacks.
The good news is, panic attacks don’t pose any significant danger. They also go away on their own, usually within 10 minutes or so. Of course, those 10 minutes might feel like an eternity when panic has you in its grip.
Here are some ways to find relief in the meantime.
Panic attacks can feel different for everyone, but it’s not unusual to wonder if you’re experiencing something serious, such as a heart attack or overdose, especially if you’ve never had a panic attack before.
The fear that happens with a panic attack is perfectly real. The threat, however, isn’t, and reminding yourself that the panic will pass can help you start to calm down.
You might certainly experience some unpleasant symptoms after ingesting too much cannabis, but this scenario
- Sit down somewhere comfortable — the sofa, the floor, your favorite chair.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath.
- Say, “I’m safe. I’m having a panic attack. I’ll feel better soon.”
- Repeat this mantra, breathing slowly and naturally, until the feelings of panic begin to life.
Using cannabis on an empty stomach can intensify the effects of THC, leading to a more serious high than you expected.
There’s an easy fix, though: Grab a snack. Even if you weren’t all that hungry to begin with, a light meal can help counteract the effects of cannabis and soothe the panic.
If you don’t have lemons, check your cabinets. Another common source of terpenes is black pepper.
If you have whole peppercorns, chew on a couple. If you have a pepper shaker on hand, give it a careful whiff. Just make sure you don’t actually inhale it, as that will create an entirely different set of unwanted symptoms.
Hyperventilation, or very rapid breathing, often happens during a panic attack.
Breathing too quickly can prevent you from getting enough carbon dioxide, which can cause tingling in your extremities and make you feel dizzy or faint. These symptoms can alarm you and end up making the panic attack worse.
Slowing down your breathing can sometimes help you begin feeling better right away. If you have a go-to technique, it can’t hurt to give it a try.
If not, try the breathing exercises below to help yourself relax.
Simple deep breathing exercise
You’ll breathe with your mouth for this technique:
- Get comfortable. It may help to sit or stand with your back against something supportive.
- Slowly inhale for 3 to 4 seconds, paying attention to the sensation of your breath filling your lungs. Some people find it helpful to place a hand on their stomach and feel it expand with each breath.
- Hold the breath for a second or two.
- Slowly exhale for 3 to 4 seconds.
- Continue until the lightheaded feeling passes and you can breathe more naturally on your own.
Alternate nostril breathing
This technique uses your nose, so you’ll want to keep your mouth closed:
- Close one nostril.
- Breathe in slowly through the other nostril for 2 to 4 seconds.
- Hold that breath for 1 to 2 seconds, then slowly exhale. Do this twice.
- Close the other nostril and repeat the process.
- Continue switching sides and breathing through one nostril at a time until your breathing slows and you feel calmer.
OK, so you’re pretty sure you’re having a panic attack, but that knowledge doesn’t calm you down automatically. Your thoughts are spinning, your heart is racing, and you can’t catch your breath. You know you’re not dying, but you still feel awful.
While it’s sometimes a little challenging to stay present through overwhelming anxiety and panic, grounding techniques can help you step back from waves of fear and anchor yourself.
Here are a few exercises to get you started:
- Run your hands under cold or warm water.
- Touch or pick up the first three objects you see, one at a time. Your favorite blanket, a book, the TV remote — anything works. Run your fingers over the contours of the object and focus on its colors and sensations. Even simply holding something can offer a point of connection with reality.
- Cuddle or stroke your pet.
- Use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to identify and list things around you: five sounds, four textures, three visible objects, two different scents, and one taste.
A panic attack definitely isn’t the time for a workout. Still, some light exercise can help relieve feelings of anxiety and panic.
Not only can moving your body distract you from fear and other overwhelming sensations, but physical activity
Try a short, brisk walk around your neighborhood or backyard.
If you don’t feel safe to leave your house, you still have indoor options:
- slow stretches
- jumping jacks
- jogging in place
Even pacing around the living room can help. Turn simple pacing into a mindful grounding exercise by naming the things you pass. For example: “Sofa. TV. Candles. Cat toys. Bookshelf. Desk.”
If you’ve ever read a Victorian novel, you’ve probably heard of smelling salts, or spirits of ammonia. This unpleasant aroma helped revive people who had just experienced a shock or felt faint for other reasons.
Scent can certainly help you snap back to the present, but choosing more pleasing fragrances can help relax you at the same time.
If you have a stock of essential oils to choose from, try lavender, pine, or lemon balm to put those terpenes to work for you.
You can also try:
- lighting a scented candle
- opening a bottle of scented lotion
- making a cup of herbal tea (after the scent soothes you, the drink can hydrate you)
A panic attack won’t kill you. Still, that fact won’t necessarily make it feel any less scary, so you probably want to avoid having another in the future.
The only sure way to completely prevent a cannabis-induced panic attack is to avoid cannabis. Still, you can lower your chances of having another one by choosing low-THC cannabis products or products with roughly the same amount of CBD and THC.
It’s also best to use edibles with caution. Always wait the full 2 hours to see if they have an effect before consuming more.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.