It’s Not Just About the Strain

Has a supposedly chill indica ever made you panic? Here’s why.

Renee Consorte
Cannabis Explorations
8 min readMar 19, 2021


Woman blows a puff of smoke into the air while standing in front of a mountain landscape.
Photo by Megan Forbes from Pexels

Despite attempts by anti-drug campaigners in the early-to-mid 1900s to demonize cannabis using “reefer madness” fear-mongering, it’s pretty well known that the drug provides the majority of its users with a myriad of positive effects, both medical and recreational.

Seeking to counter the “weed makes you go insane and commit violent crime” narrative of the War on Drugs, some daily smokers and general weed advocates go fully in the other direction. A growing number of people seem to hold the belief that weed should be a fun time for everyone; the ultimate cure for stress, anxiety, and any other negative mental state that may befall you, miraculously packed into a drug that is entirely physically harmless. These messages are confusing for individuals whose attempts to consume cannabis have been less than enjoyable.

While many who smoke will report the feelings of euphoria and relaxation that cannabis is famous for, and find that it helps them sleep, tempers their anxiety, or even bolsters their creative energies, others find that a single hit leaves them gripped by anxiety, paranoia, or even full-blown panic. Why do some people have negative reactions to a drug that’s supposed to be fun and relaxing?

With the wealth of articles related to “best strains for anxiety” and the enduring, though entirely baseless dichotomy of energizing sativa versus couch-locked indica, people who have been slighted by weed before can feel pressured to try it again, aiming for strains labeled as relaxing.

“I just really feel like I’m missing out on some euphoric experience,” Lisa Lotens wrote in an article for Vice about her struggle to enjoy smoking like her friends do. “Am I doing it wrong and could I just learn to appreciate it?”

The mental and physical effects of cannabis can drastically differ from person to person, and vary between highs in the same person. Many factors influence the outcome of any particular smoke sesh, from the cannabinoid content of the flower to the genetics, unique biochemistry, and personality of the person smoking as well as the environment they’re smoking in.

Many weed enthusiasts have been taught that sativa and indica-dominant strains have distinct effects, and to choose one or the other in order to curate their smoking experience. The principle on which the informed smoker should base their weed decisions has been: sativa strains bring on an energizing, creatively-charged buzz, and indica strains offer a relaxing body high that promotes stress relief and a fulfilling night’s sleep.

The truth of the matter is that whether a plant is indica or sativa says very little about the actual characteristics of the high it may produce. The terms refer to the biological classification of the plant species, and are not any sort of reliable predictor for chemical composition or psychoactive effects.

So if you have ever become wired and anxious from a supposedly relaxing indica, know that the whole sativa vs. indica debacle is not a reliable metric.

Strain names are a little more helpful in determining how any particular flower will make you feel, but are far from a flawless lone indicator of potential effects. Particularly when it comes to very popular names like Sour Diesel, some producers may identify their product with them because they believe its effects match up with what customers expect from that name, even if their product is not genetically identical to other plants of that name.

However, there is often a fair amount of consistency among plants with the same name in terms of effects; enough to establish generalized trends from user’s anecdotal reports. But what matters more is the chemical composition of each flower, as it will not be the same across every plant.

The two main cannabinoids in cannabis, which share the spotlight in media and research, are THC and CBD. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that THC is responsible for cannabis’s intoxicating effects, and CBD is non-psychotropic and lauded for its anxiety-killing properties, but I’m going to say it anyway just to be safe. THC can be euphoric and uplifting, but can also serve to catalyze frantic, anxious thoughts and elevate your heart rate. The dosage of THC that is taken seems to be significant; studies have shown that it appears to decrease anxiety at lower doses, and increase anxiety at higher doses. There is no universal dosage tipping point where, once it’s been surpassed, will suddenly catapult you into a world of anxiety. There are many other factors at play, and everyone is different.

CBD, on the other hand, tends to have a calming effect, and is often the source of cannabis’s therapeutic properties like pain relief and easing the symptoms of certain mental health issues. Interestingly, when the two chemicals are consumed at the same time, CBD can actually counteract any negative effects of THC, like anxiety and paranoia.

Generally, higher CBD strains tend to be the way to go for people who suffer from anxiety, or who have become anxious from smoking weed before. However, the way our bodies and brains respond to cannabis consumption is not only influenced by the content of the flower; each user’s unique biology and psychology play no small part.

Cannabis is able to interact with our biological systems and produce the effects it does due to our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which, according to an article on Leafly, is largely comprised of the endocannabinoids that we produce, the enzymes that break cannabinoids down, and cannabinoid receptors. Though its existence is a relatively new discovery, research suggests that the ECS has a role in regulating many bodily functions, which were outlined in the Leafly article as including “sleep, mood, memory, appetite, reproduction, and pain sensation”. The ECS also regulates immune response, which is why CBD has anti-inflammatory properties.

Each one of us has an individualized ECS, with differing trends in terms of the endocannabinoid levels in our bodies. One theory, first proposed by Dr. Ethan Russo in 2001, suggests that all humans have an underlying “endocannabinoid tone”, and that lower-than-average levels in the body are correlated with some diseases like fibromyalgia, as well as increased anxiety.

Though this theory is still just that — a theory, research seems to indicate that there are many identifiable genetic variations for how our bodies process cannabinoids. One particular genetic variation that has received media attention in a New York Times article has been unofficially dubbed “the feel-good gene”.

I do want to note that this article has drawn scrutiny from some readers for its bold claims about the “proven” behavioral effects of the gene, as it may conflate correlation with causation. There are studies that suggest that certain genetic variations may influence your mood, but there is not enough evidence to show that genes affecting the ECS definitively cause certain reactions to weed, or any sort of generalized behavior pattern in people.

People with the “feel-good” variant (an estimated 20% of the population has it) have more anandamide, the most prominent endocannabinoid in our bodies, than others do. It’s not that their body produces more of the chemical, but rather that they have less of the FAAH enzyme, which breaks down anandamide.

Since those with the variant have some of the anxiety-killing properties of cannabis built-into their brains, they may be less susceptible to the effects of weed, and less likely to enjoy smoking it because it won’t alter their mood as much.

Just as some genetic mutations can make you less sensitive to the effects of cannabis, there are also variants that make cannabis hit you harder if you have them. Particularly mutations that alter the functionality of the CB1 receptor, which is the receptor in the ECS that THC targets, can increase sensitivity to cannabis and theoretically lower your endocannabinoid tone.

Some suggest that consuming cannabinoids would make people with lower ECS function feel good, but this is not an established rule. It would also stand to reason that if you’re more sensitive to weed, its effects could be overwhelming in an unpleasant way, especially due to THC’s anxiety-amplifying effects at high doses.

There’s also a variation in the Akt gene, which is not an ECS-specific gene, that leaves people who have it prone to making errors in judgment and experiencing issues with their motor control after ingesting cannabis. People with this mutation are also more vulnerable to cannabis-induced psychosis. This gene could be another potential explanation for bad experiences with cannabis in specific individuals, but not for the average user. This genetic variant is correlated with several other non-cannabis related issues, including some types of cancer and Proteus Syndrome, so it’s not some insidious gene that wouldn’t make itself known until you smoked weed and freaked out.

Besides genetics, your lifestyle, age, gender, general level of stress you’re exposed to, overall health, and any medications you’re on also influence your biochemistry and ECS.

As you would probably expect, how naturally prone you are to anxiety is a major factor in how you react to weed too. Going back to Lisa Lotens’ aforementioned VICE article, she interviewed neuropsychologist Natasha Mason about potential reasons behind her weed-based anxiety. Mason explained that THC tends to amplify existing anxiety, and may interface with brain chemicals that regulate mood, such as serotonin, noradrenaline, and GABA, differently in a person more prone to anxiety than it would in someone who is not.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that calms down the central nervous system by preventing specific signals from firing. GABA inhibits norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in alertness and anxiety. For most people, smoking weed calms them down through the release of GABA and serotonin, but for an unlucky minority, chemically reducing norepinephrine levels has a rebound effect, stimulating activity in parts of the brain involved in arousal. This increases the heart rate and triggers the release of cortisol, creating the sensation of anxiety.

In people who deal with anxious, racing thoughts on the regular; those who can’t stop themselves from over-analyzing situations or expecting the worst outcome of every scenario, weed may just serve to reinforce these tendencies during the high rather than offering the relief that the person is most likely seeking. Individuals with higher anxiety sensitivity may misinterpret any disorienting or uncomfortable effects of cannabis as dangerous, and are more likely to notice and be distressed by any anxiety-like symptoms such as elevated heart rate.

Of course, there are times when someone is in an unsettling, unfamiliar, or otherwise uncomfortable environment when smoking, which could lead to a bad time regardless of baseline anxiety levels. If your first time getting high was a tense or even scary experience because you were pressured into it or were scared of getting caught, maybe it wasn’t the weed itself.

However, if you have tried it several times in varying situations and it still produced the same effect, it is indeed the weed, or rather how you react to it.

Though research has expanded in recent years with the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in most states and recreational in several, the reasons behind some of the potentially negative effects of weed are still not fully understood.

Could someone who had a bad experience with one strain get to feel the pleasant buzz the drug is lauded for by trying a different one? In short, maybe. Some will only get anxious from certain strains, while others will feel terrible no matter what they smoke.

If you have had uncomfortable experiences from cannabis before, don’t feel pressured to try it again just because it’s so popular. You can appraise the tone and circumstances of the situations in which you’ve used it previously and go from there. Maybe you were just feeling anxious in an unfamiliar social situation, and the weed amplified your uneasiness. Or it’s possible you have a naturally low tolerance to THC and you smoked or ate a dose that was too high. Or, perhaps, weed just isn’t for you, and that’s okay too. It all depends on your physical and mental infrastructure, and how they marry with cannabinoids.



Renee Consorte
Cannabis Explorations

I write about psychology and mental health, trying to understand why we act and feel the way we do.