Let's be brutally honest first. When a person used to tell me they didn't enjoy smoking marijuana because it makes them feel “paranoid,” I immediately pegged them as someone who couldn't face their inner demons. It wasn't always very fair, but there you have it.
It's a tough subject to broach and one I've struggled to address over my years as a cannabis reporter—because of the stern, self-congratulatory judgment hiding out in there. The real trouble comes from our inability to interpret the inner workings of others without comparing them to our own, and I've never really been sure of what the literature means by “paranoia.” Is it a sense of fear surrounding a nonexistent threat? Is it cycling compulsive thoughts of an anxious bent? Is it hallucinations of black helicopters and the certainty that government agencies are following your every move?
According to Mental Health America, paranoia involves “intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy.” That doesn't exactly jive with my cannabis experiences at all, and I started to wonder what exactly people meant when they said they felt “paranoid.” I asked a few patients if they'd ever experienced the feeling and to describe it to me.
“I felt doomed,” said one. “That's the word. I felt like I was physically going to die. I kept stressing about little things, and time seemed extremely slow. It was almost like the world was coming to an end in some kind of terrible, catastrophic way.”
“It's only happened a few times,” said another. “I become super self conscious—worry I'm making stupid faces. I get quiet, tongue-tied and feel like people are judging me. Or I worry about being perceived as dumb.”
One patient explained with a story: “I was once really high and changing in a dressing room at a department store. I heard the clerks laughing up front and was convinced there was a two-way mirror and they were laughing at me while I changed.”
Another: “It felt like someone was listening or watching me.”
Another: “I feel like everyone is watching me or cares about what I'm doing … or they know.”
One more: “I think every cop is trying to arrest me and everybody knows I'm high.”
Surprisingly, almost every single person I asked said that when they were experiencing paranoia, it usually included the concern that someone would know they were under the influence of marijuana. This was completely unexpected on my part, and adds a totally new dimension to this story. If cannabis and its effects were unabashedly accepted in our culture, then this fear wouldn't exist in the first place. And going to jail for possessing cannabis has been the rule for most of our lives—that's still true for the majority of New Mexicans. Being worried that someone is going to lock you in a cage over your drug use sounds fairly rational to me, given the history.
The second most common occurrence I heard about was the sensation of being watched. This is a feeling almost everyone has experienced at some point in their lives. According to a 2016 article from Popular Science, it could arise from subconsciously registered stimulation (a breeze ruffling the curtains or a shift in the air as the air conditioner turns on) that fires off autonomic fear responses in the amygdala, which controls fight or flight response.
Another explanation for the feeling comes from a study published by Current Biology in 2014. According to Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience Olaf Blanke, the sensation of feeling another presence when one is alone comes from interruptions in the temporoparietal, insular and frontoparietal cortex regions, which contribute to our sense of location in space. In other words: A hiccup is causing you to sense your own body in another spot in the room, giving you the feeling that someone else is there.
For someone working at baseline consciousness, these instances of subconscious stimulus response or spatial distortion might register as a second or two of creepy vibes before being dismissed. But for someone who has just hit the peak of a deep cannabis dive—experiencing an intense magnification of their senses and emotional responses—they might result in a full-on paranoid freak-out.
Just being aware of these responses might be enough to curb future anxiety loops. It also seems to only be a problem for relatively new users. When I spoke to patients who've been using cannabis for more than five years, they all prefaced their stories by saying that it was something they hadn't experienced since the early days.
So that leaves us with one last “paranoid” experience: the existential anxiety vortex—that feeling of encroaching doom attached to previous events in your life, concerns about mortality, garden-variety fears, small worries or sometimes nothing definable at all. The latter was the one I've experienced and the one that led me to judge others so harshly. Because I feel experiencing existential terror is actually one of the secret benefits of using cannabis.
Generally speaking these are pretty normal thoughts for someone to struggle with. The issue is that suddenly, under the influence of marijuana, those thoughts become loud, repeating mantras that are impossible to escape. You find yourself huddled into the corner of the couch, weeping at the idea of your dog dying. And here's the thing: That's good!
It's easy in our day-to-day lives to push those feelings down and avoid them, but marijuana won't let you do that. It grabs all those awful thoughts you've been ignoring and thrusts them under your nose. It affords you the opportunity—if you're willing to take it—to go sifting through the detritus of your own psyche and work through all those metastasizing chunks of negativity. It reminds us that our actions have consequence on the world and the people around us. If that sounds completely awful to you, then you should really ask yourself why that is. All cannabis users experience these feelings from time to time, but some of us have learned to exist comfortably in that space and use it to inform the way we live when we're on the outside.
So when you find you've gone too deep—the walls are closing in and you just know the world is on the verge of collapsing—you can remind yourself that no one in the history of humankind has ever died of a marijuana overdose and that the best thing you can do is breathe deeply and meditate on that fact. And relax.