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Getting ready to quit marijuana but worried about withdrawal symptoms?

Well, everyone is different and while some people have little difficulty with stopping others have a very difficult week or so as they endure withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, irritability, lack of appetite and others.

Though you can't predict the severity of your detox with any certainty, there are a number of life and experiential factors that are associated with more extreme withdrawal symptoms - and the more of these that match your own experience, the more challenging the withdrawals are likely to be.

Life and Experiential Factors Associated with More Difficult Marijuana Withdrawals:1

Reducing Your Daily Dosage Quickly

If you're able to taper down your daily dosage over time you will experience milder withdrawal symptoms.

Unfortunately, few people addicted to marijuana have much success with gradual dose reductions, since hallmark characteristics of addiction include a loss of control over how much and how often you use and using despite realizing the negative consequences of use.

The Co-Presence of Another Mental Health Disorder

Co-occurring disorders can influence the severity of marijuana withdrawal symptoms in a number of ways:

  • Since many people with mental illness use marijuana for self medication, the sudden removal of this ‘medication’ and the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms can worsen symptoms of mental illness. This is obviously very discouraging and often leads to relapse.
  • Mental illness can create an additive effect. Some symptoms of marijuana withdrawal mimic symptoms of some mental illnesses. If you already have an anxiety disorder then you are going to have a much harder time dealing with marijuana withdrawal anxiety than someone without such a co-occurring disorder.
  • People who have used more heavily or for longer periods of time are at greater risk of more severe withdrawal symptoms, but people with co-occurring disorders are at a similar risk of more severe withdrawals since they tend to experience negative consequences from their substance abuse more quickly/after less excessive use.2

Since co-occurring disorders complicate withdrawals and recovery, experts recommend that you take an integrated approach, with treatment that deals with substance abuse and mental illness concurrently. At a most basic level, this might just mean talking with your doctor or therapist about your plans to quit smoking marijuana so that she can monitor the situation, give advice or change your treatment regimen as appropriate.

In more serious situations, this may mean enrolling in an outpatient or residential treatment program that specializes in integrated care for people with co-occurring disorders.

Older Age

Older age can complicate withdrawals for a number of reasons:

  • Older people are more likely using additional medications which can exacerbate withdrawals and more likely to have existing health concerns which can intensify symptoms.
  • Older adults may have longer histories of use
  • They are more likely to have endured marijuana withdrawals on previous occasions. Although it’s not clear if multiple bouts of marijuana withdrawal cause worsening symptoms severity, this is certainly the case for detoxification from other substances, like alcohol.
  • Older adults with long histories of substance abuse are more likely to have experienced head traumas and brain injury, which can complicate detoxification.

Basically, all things being equal, experts say that older adults are at higher risk than younger adults to experience a longer and more difficult withdrawal period3 and when treatment is needed, older adults have better outcomes when getting treatment with peers of a similar age, rather than in a mixed age treatment environment.4

Recently Using a Lot or Using Very High Potency Marijuana

Withdrawal symptoms occur as the brain adapts to a sudden dramatic change in neurotransmitter activity.

The more you’ve been using and the stronger the marijuana you’ve had access to the greater the change in neurotransmitter activity for the brain to have to adapt to.

A Longer History of Current Use

The longer you engage in any behavior the more persistent the neural adaptations. Just as using high quantities or high potency marijuana can result in more difficult withdrawal symptoms, sudden cessation after a long period of use also results in dramatic changes in neurotransmitter activity and a greater likelihood of more challenging withdrawal symptoms.

Your Expectations (If You Expect the Withdrawals to Be Difficult They Are More Likely to Be So)

You are likely familiar with the placebo effect: If you expect a medication to work it is more likely to do so (in clinical trials, people given sugar pills who believe they are given active medications are fairly likely to report feeling some positive effects).

Well sister to the placebo effect is the ‘nocebo’ effect: the occurrence of negative symptoms caused solely by a person’s expectations.

Clinical research proves that patients who have an expectation of negative symptoms are more likely to experience these symptoms than people who do not believe they will experience negative or severely negative symptoms.5

So if you’ve heard a lot about marijuana withdrawal insomnia or loss of appetite and you expect that these are normal occurrences then you are more likely to experience these symptoms than a person who has no such expectations.

The Past or Present Abuse of Another Substance

The past or present abuse of another drug or of alcohol complicates the detox process and can worsen withdrawal symptoms.

  • The side effects of intoxication or withdrawal from other substances can increase the severity of certain marijuana withdrawal symptoms. For example, the anxiety of an alcohol hang-over can exacerbate the anxiety and irritability of marijuana withdrawal.
  • Prior experience with drug or alcohol withdrawal may increase the severity of successive withdrawals
  • The abuse of another intoxicant generally reduces a person's ability to resist cravings and temptation

Having a History of Aggression or Violence

Studies show that regular marijuana smokers are involved in violent acts more frequently than occasional or non marijuana smokers.6

Since irritability can increase the likelihood of aggression and violence the withdrawal period may be a period of increased risk for violent acts.

Being Forced into an Involuntary Withdrawal

People forced to stop using due to external factors or pressures rather than because of internal motivation are often resentful of the forces pressuring change and even of the process of change itself.7

So, rather than viewing withdrawal symptoms as difficult but positive steps toward change, a person coerced into marijuana detox may focus more on the negative aspects of the process and in doing so perceive that symptoms are more severe and unpleasant.

Lacking Social, Familial or Professional Support Systems

Dealing with withdrawals is tough enough - dealing withdrawals alone is needlessly hard. Enlist the support of people who care about you for a few days and use their encouragement and distraction as beneficial weapons in your fight to get clean.

The good news is that no matter how tough your withdrawal symptoms get, they don’t generally last with any severity for more than a week or so and there’s a lot you can do to minimize your discomfort – make sure you check out 10 tips for dealing with marijuana insomnia.

And if you’re still not sure if you’re really ready to take the plunge and quit, get some inspiration from others who’ve gone before you as previously heavy smokers talk about the benefits of life without marijuana at 39 reasons why life is better without a heavy marijuana habit.

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Page last updated Mar 02, 2013

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