One issue I find that is rarely discussed within the mental health community is drugs: both legal and illegal. One of the advantages of running a blog with zero financial support is that I’m free to write about any topic I like. Today, I’m going to take a look at my own experience with drugs and how someone with anxiety can best enjoy what the world has to offer without sending themselves spiralling down that all too familiar black hole! Side note: This post does not look at prescription drugs.
Why is it Important?
You may very well be wondering why I’m bothering to write about such a topic. Well, other that it being completely unrepresented, I do find it to be an incredibly important issue. My anxiety attacks were triggered by a drug (although which one it was might surprise you) and I think that having some information on the topic could help people who are curious. Let it be noted that everything within this post is based on my own experience. Not everyone will react the same way that I have in the past. I’m simply going to share my opinion on the substance, my experience and my advice on how best to enjoy it without it negatively impacting your anxiety.
The effect of legal drugs such as caffeine, tobacco (nicotine) and alcohol is often ignored. Many people don’t even count them as drugs, despite the fact that all three are psychoactive substances. We live in this delusional bubble that because something is legal, the potential harm is could cause must be minimal when in reality it could very well be the opposite. This won’t be a pro-drug post but rather an honest exploration of my own experiences.
So probably the most common drug to be used, alcohol has its pros and cons. When you have anxiety, alcohol can offer a relief from thinking. For me, I often over-think the most simple situations and as a teenager/young adult this was ever more true. Alcohol allowed me a brief window of disconnection from my brain. I could relax, have a good time, act like I was sociable for an evening and have a good time. I mean who doesn’t want that?
However, alcohol is a double-edged sword. Yes, on the one hand it can allow a respite from the ever-present weight of anxiety but it also lures you into a very destructive behaviour. While I was at university, some of the only times I could be truly sociable with people was on a night out. I became loud, talkative, more fun…basically I became everything that sober me wasn’t. But alcohol is just a mask in this situation. You’ll often hear people say that alcohol reveals ones true self…no. All it does is remove certain inhibitions which also includes many social norms that you’ve spent most of your life learning.
People see you on a night out and think you’re fun and then when they meet you sober they can’t believe how quiet and distant you are. You soon find that the only way you can avoid being anxious is through alcohol which is a very slippery slope. Alcohol is a poison and while it temporarily blocks inhibitions and makes you feel “normal” it doesn’t help sober you at all. I actually found that drinking alcohol made me more anxious the rest of the time. At the end of the day, alcohol is a poison but if you’re going to drink it my advice would be this: don’t drink past the point where you no longer feel in control. When I start to feel like it isn’t me controlling this meat-covered skeleton, I stop drinking alcohol and move onto water.
This will be a very short topic so to get straight to the point: don’t smoke tobacco. While it can help some people’s concentration, it will not benefit your anxiety at all (when it feels like it is, this is simply your cravings being met and dopamine being released into your brain). When you have anxiety and are also addicted to something like cigarettes, you’ll start combining the two feelings. This means that whenever you start to crave a cigarette, you’ll also start to get anxious and when you get anxious you’ll start to crave a smoke. My advice here is quite simple: don’t take up smoking tobacco in the first place.
I view drugs in two ways: what potential harm could this drug do to me and are the potential benefits worth that risk. In the case of tobacco, this weighs out at a lot of harm with zero potential benefits.
I often view caffeine as the secret drug: The one that hides in the shadows and slips by unnoticed. Surely there is no harm in drinking a cup of coffee, right? For most people, drinking caffeine isn’t a problem, whether it is in coffee, energy drinks or tablets. If you have anxiety then it can be a different story. I didn’t start drinking coffee until university. I’d never enjoyed the taste and I had no problem functioning. I used to drink a lot of energy drinks though and it’s now clear why I started having anxiety attacks (and why they got worst). One of the symptoms of an anxiety attack is a fast or erratic heartbeat…which is also what happens when you consume caffeine.
If you have anxiety then I recommend you avoid caffeine as much as possible, even more so when you’re about to head into a situation which makes you anxious. For me, it was exams. I never drank coffee before an exam because it would make me need to pee and then I’d have to leave the exam which would be torturous enough for me: having to stand up in front of a room of 60 or so people. Revising for exams though was a different story. I’d power through hours of revision: creating mind maps, making notes, reading topics or watching related YouTube videos (and some unrelated ones) and every time my concentration started to fade, I’d have another cup of coffee.
I started going for coffee with people as well in my free time, meaning that my caffeine intake was at the highest it had ever been in my entire life. This led to my anxiety also being at its worst and my anxiety attacks being ever more prevalent. I’m not saying you should avoid all caffeine…but my advice is moderation. Don’t have a cup of coffee every single day. It’s better to save it for the rare days when you absolutely need it. I’ve even started buying caffeine free green tea, despite the fact that normal green tea has a minimal level of caffeine anyway.
Not all of these drugs will be illegal. For example, I’ll be discussing weed which is legal where I live now but isn’t legal where I grew up. So just for arguments sake I’m including it here. I could look at the research into some of these drugs and their benefits but perhaps I’d better save that for a separate post. So I’m going to look at weed, MDMA and cocaine. I’m not encouraging the use of these drugs (although I’m not doing the opposite either). This is simply a look at how they may effect anxiety so that if you’re taking them, you know how best to go about it. Education is without a doubt the BEST way to reduce the damage done by ALL drugs, including illegal ones!
I’m on the fence with weed. I don’t think it’s the miracle drug that many stoners make it out to be. I also don’t think it’s the Devils lettuce. Like any drug moderation is the key. If you have anxiety and already smoke weed or are thinking about starting, there are a few pearls of wisdom I’d like to pass on to you. This could probably be a post all on its own so I’ll try and be as concise as possible. If you haven’t smoked weed before, go into it cautiously. You won’t overdose (there are literally zero cases of someone dying from smoking weed other than driving accidents). So know going in that you are safe. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncomfortable or freak out…but that is avoidable.
For starters, know that different strains have different effects and as a result, some will make you feel more anxious, paranoid, happy, relaxed, giggly, ETC than others. This is something you have to consider before smoking weed. You get three main groups: sativa, indica and hybrid. This will be a gross generalisation but the way I explain it to people is like this: An indica will make you sleepy. You’ll be stoned in the typical sense of melting into your sofa. A sativa allows you to be more functional and if you’re looking to boost creativity or smoke weed and still go about your day, this would be the best choice. A hybrid can lean more in either direction. Within each type you have different strains.
To get a better idea of the strains and their effects, I’d recommend checking the site or downloading the app called Leafly. It gives you charts and information for each strain. This means you can look at a particular strain and get an idea of whether it will make you more anxious than another. You can even search for weed strains that are used to reduce anxiety symptoms (something I’ve been experimenting with recently). Of course this is only useful if you’re in a position to choose your strain of weed which won’t be the case for most of you.
For me, being in hugely social situations can make my anxiety spike. Adding weed into the equation almost always makes matters worse. If I’m at a party and lots of people are smoking weed, I’m usually fine. I went to Amsterdam recently and found that smoking in coffee shops is still incredibly intimidating and triggers my anxiety very easily. I was rarely high and not freaking out in my head. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind whenever you’re considering smoking weed.
So make sure you scope out your own situation before deciding to light up. Don’t be pressured into smoking weed, especially if it’s going to make you anxious. I can assure you that when anxiety hits and you’re high and not somewhere you consider “safe”, it can be truly terrifying. Anxiety on weed is like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. You’ll have to ride out the high and after 10 minutes, half an hour, maybe two hours, you’ll start to enjoy the high but that can feel like an eternity. As a general rule, if I’m going to be in a situation where I’ll be smoking weed but potentially not 100% comfortable, then I go for the “less is more approach”.
This is where we start to enter into unstable territory. I don’t want to encourage anyone to take MDMA because under the wrong circumstances or without knowing how, you could put yourself at risk. That being said, MDMA was always a very useful drug for me. As I mentioned before, moderation is key. If you start relying on a drug in any way then it is no longer helping you in the long run. For me, MDMA was a gateway. I found a way to go on a night out, truly express my happiness, joy and be sociable but without the loss of control I get from alcohol.
MDMA is more often than not used as a party drug but there are other uses for it. I’ve often taken MDMA while hanging out with a close group of friends and it really strengthened the bond we share. In all honesty, it is incredibly therapeutic. As well as that, you can use MDMA on your own. For example, it can be used alongside meditation to improve your technique and also your experience. You feel emotions that you didn’t even think were possible!
You may be wondering what the difference is between ecstasy and MDMA. Well, MDMA is the main ingredient in pills but the pills will usually contain other substances and while there are communities where you can search for information on a pill (Pill Report) you never really know what you’re taking. MDMA on the other hand can have its purity tested quite simply. There is also another benefit: ecstasy has what is known as “the rush”. When you start to come up, you get this overwhelming feeling that for me, often made me anxious and start to freak out. MDMA is a lot more subtle and sometimes it takes a while for you to realise you’re even feeling the effects.
So you can take MDMA without it having any real impact on your anxiety. I cannot highlight enough how important moderation is. I take MDMA once every 3 months at the absolute most. It can be a harmful drug and while it is fun to use occasionally, regular use can cause serious damage. I view it as a tool and while I do view it as a potentially harmful drug, aren’t most drugs? Your doctor could prescribe you a drug equally as harmful.
Similar to tobacco, this will be a relatively short post. Assuming you have good quality cocaine, the first few times you use it pose little risk to your mental or physical health. The real issue with cocaine is when your body starts deactivating dopamine receptors. This is where the addiction kicks in and it starts to take even more of a toll on your mind and body. I wouldn’t really recommend cocaine to anyone. I had a little bit of fun with it at university but the high itself just makes you feel energetic.
I found it did take the edge off my anxiety but in all honesty, that’s about it. Unlike MDMA which I personally view can have long term benefits, the benefits of cocaine are minimal and short lived. In all honesty, I’d advise people to stay away from it. Similar to tobacco, the potential benefits are not worth the potential risks.
These are all the drugs I’ve so far had experience with. In the coming months I’ll be trying magic mushrooms as a treatment for my anxiety. There is now plenty of evidence to support the idea that it’s actually a more effective treatment than anything a doctor will prescribe you. I’m going into it with the knowledge that the experience may be entirely unpleasant but that coming out the other side has the potential to be noticeably beneficial.
There is still a stigma surrounding mental health much in the way there is a stigma surrounding drugs. Why is it that we don’t acknowledge the truly incredible results seen by PTSD sufferers who have used MDMA alongside therapy? Why do we not acknowledge the anxiety treating effects of magic mushrooms which have been tested time and time again? Why can we not take a look at the addiction-fighting effects of LSD or Ayahuasca? Or the pain relief from marijuana?
I find it truly disturbing that pharmaceutical drugs with unfathomably long lists of potential side effects can be prescribed on a whim, yet drugs that can be used recreationally but also medicinally are completely ignored or shot down. Taking the simplest anxiety medication comes with a whole load of risks (which is one of the reasons I always avoided any medicine that I’d have to take regularly). Yes, drugs CAN be bad and they CAN be harmful…but that goes for illegal drugs just as much as it goes for pharmaceutical drugs. The only difference is that one is regulated and the other isn’t. I think it’s high time we started exploring the healing powers of certain drugs rather than ignoring them completely just because there is a negative stigma attached to them
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Hope you have a great day! Peace!