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Withdrawal symptoms are hard to take. Perseverance through discomfort comes easier if you know that it’s for a good reason, and you can see that you are making progress.

Many marijuana users find that longtime heavy use compromises thinking abilities. Fortunately, in most cases, thinking abilities return to a normal level within a month or two of quitting.

Here’s a way to spin improvements in cognitive abilities (a very good thing) into increased odds of staying quit (another very good thing):

  1. A lot of people find quitting tough, especially when dealing with lingering withdrawal symptoms, like insomnia.
  2. To counteract some of the negatives (like the lingering withdrawal symptoms…which you probably can’t avoid noticing) you should try to focus on how quitting improves your life – such as by noticing specific improvements in thinking abilities.
  3. Unfortunately, we aren’t very good at noticing changes when they occur very slowly or gradually (as opposed to withdrawal symptoms, which come on very suddenly and noticeably).
  4. If you pay more attention to how your cognitive abilities improve over the first couple of months after quitting, you can use these encouraging gains as motivation to continue your efforts.
  5. To help you notice improvements, you should make a list before you quit (or in the early days) of the very specific ways that marijuana compromises your thinking abilities. Then revisit this list every week or so after quitting, to evaluate your progress, and to underscore that your improvements result from quitting marijuana.
  6. To help you make this specific inventory, review the list you'll find below of common cognitive side-effects and circle whichever you identify with

Cognitive Side Effects of Heavy Marijuana Use

Researchers at Lund University Hospital interviewed 400 heavy marijuana users to develop a list of cognitive deficits/complaints that are associated with chronic serious use.1

Has your marijuana habit diminished your intellectual capacity?

To find out and to create a framework for monitoring improvements after you quit, circle any of the following which apply to you. Then, over time, as you maintain marijuana abstinence, revisit this list to see how much improvement you’re making.

Note: This is a complete list of all cognitive symptoms reported by a large pool of heavy users. It is very unlikely that all will apply to your experience. Simply circle those that do (that you answer yes to) and disregard those that do not.

Verbal Skills

Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Are you less able to remember and use specific and precise words?
  • Do find it more difficult to take an active part in discussions going on around you?
  • Do other people have difficulty understanding what you’re trying to express?
  • Do you have more difficulty understanding what other people are trying to express to you?
  • Do you feel like you’re removed from others (as if you were in a glass bottle)?
  • Do you find it more difficult to describe your feelings?


Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Are you more likely to forget meetings and appointments or commitments you’ve made?
  • Do you have a harder time remembering your past?
  • Do you have more difficulty estimating the passage of time?
  • Do you find it harder to remember the plot of a book or movie as it unfolds?

Cognitive Flexibility

Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Do you have more difficulty maintaining comlex ideas in your head during a discussion?
  • Is it harder to stay focused or to concentrate for long period of time?
  • Once you get focused on one thing is it harder to suddenly shift your focus to something else?
  • Do you have a harder time understanding other people’s viewpoints?
  • Do you find that you talk TO other people rather than talk WITH other people?

Learning and Using Information

Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Are you more likely to keep making the same mistakes over and over again?
  • Are you less able to assess your own behaviors and see where you’re going wrong in life?
  • Are you less able to find appropriate solutions to problems you’re having?
  • Do you care less about life-mistakes you make?
  • Do you feel more like a failure than you used to?

Analytic-Synthetic Ability

Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Have you become more rigid in your opinions or in expectations of others?
  • Do you have more difficulty sorting between important and extraneous information?
  • Do you have more trouble classifying information correctly?
  • Do you have more difficulty interpreting nuance and shades of grey within information?

Time-Space Abilities

Compared to your pre-marijuana days:

  • Do you have more difficulty creating routines?
  • Do find it more difficult to structure your day?
  • Do you find you notice relations between others less than you used to?
  • Do you find it harder to maintain a mental map?
  • Do you find that you’re less aware of your surroundings?
  • Do you feel more like you don’t belong within ‘normal’ society?

Focusing on Improvements

So, did you answer YES to any of the questions above?

If so, write down (or print off) a list of your specific marijuana-related cognitive problems.

  • After quitting, revisit this list every week or so, and think about what progress/if any, you’ve made on specific items since quitting.

You should find, by about 6 weeks or so, that you’ve made dramatic improvements in problem areas. The trick is in managing to stay quit for long enough to reach this 6 week milestone!

When withdrawal symptoms get intense and when you start feeling stressed or bored, it’s easy to fall back to familiar patterns of getting high. By paying attention to the specific improvements you make during initial recovery, you can enhance your motivation to persevere and increase your odds of long term success!

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Page last updated Apr 15, 2016

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