Marijuana is the most popular drug in the United States outside of alcohol, with 12% of the US population partaking on a regular basis. This number is even higher among those 18 to 29, with 26% admitting to use. As the legalization movement continues to grow — as of 2020, it’s legal for recreational use in 11 states and Washington DC — it’s likely that usage rates will increase as well. However, legal and safe aren’t necessarily synonymous.
While the concept of weed as a gateway drug has largely been dismissed as an old-school scare tactic, marijuana isn’t as benign as frequently depicted. It can be addictive, even if on a behavioral level versus a physical one, and quitting can be harder than it sounds. This is particularly true for those who are using marijuana to self-medicate. When used to address things like depression or anxiety, it’s not uncommon for these weed withdrawal symptoms to indicate the possibility of a mental disorder.
For those struggling to balance a healthy life with marijuana use, it’s important to understand the true signs of weed withdrawal and what they can mean for you and your life.
The Nature of Marijuana Addiction
Marijuana isn’t commonly seen as being as dangerous or addictive as drugs like heroin or cocaine. In general, this is true; the risk of overdose or lasting physical damage is indeed much lower than it is with other substances. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t addictive or can’t negatively affect other areas of your life.
As those addicted to behaviors like gambling, shopping, eating or sex know, a substance doesn’t have to be inherently physically addictive to cause addictive behaviors. The rush associated with doing something pleasurable — in this case, smoking or otherwise ingesting weed — can lead to a legitimate use disorder.
The concept of activity as a form of addiction isn’t just a theoretical idea, either. Gambling addiction is actually included in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While its behavioral peers are not yet recognized, this inclusion does lend significant credence to the idea that a substance doesn’t have to affect brain chemistry to be truly addictive.
Even though marijuana doesn’t affect the brain in the same ways other drugs do, it can be very addictive. After prolonged regular use, it isn’t uncommon for users to feel they can’t function without access to weed, especially when all social or recreational activities are dominated by getting high.
Can You Have Weed Withdrawals?
Some drugs are known for exceptionally potent or dangerous forms of withdrawal. Quitting a serious alcohol use disorder without professional intervention, for example, can be life-threatening, causing seizures, coma or death. However, this is not true with marijuana use. There are no real health threats from quitting weed cold turkey or without the advice of a medical professional — but that doesn’t mean putting down the joints will be easy.
As with all forms of addiction, from gambling to heroin abuse, quitting is never simple. From physical effects to behavioral changes to accommodate abusive behavior, a substance use disorder can affect your life in many ways. This cocktail of circumstances can make even the strongest, most determined person feel as if leaving addiction behind is a steep uphill battle with no end in sight.
For this reason, many people who quit smoking weed do experience mental and physical symptoms. These can include:
- Nervousness and anxiety
- Anger and aggression
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Sweating and shakiness
- Stomach pain
How weed withdrawal manifests can differ from one person to the next based on things like usage habits, the duration of addiction and existing personality or behavioral traits prior to developing a marijuana use disorder.
Weed Withdrawal and Mental Disorders
Due to its relatively low-risk level in comparison to other similar substances and wide availability, many people use weed to self-medicate. They may smoke to reduce anxiety levels, feel better during a period of major depression or even to help them sleep. This can certainly be effective while in the midst of use, but when trying to quit, all the negative side effects from potential mental illness can come rushing back.
For those who are using marijuana to fight mental health symptoms, the line between physical effects of withdrawal and the reemergence of preexisting conditions can become blurry. It’s not always easy to tell whether the anxiety a recovering pot smoker feels is due to the challenges of quitting or the presence of an anxiety disorder. This can make quitting even more difficult, creating uncomfortable circumstances that can exacerbate the challenges associated with cessation.
The most common symptoms of weed withdrawal that can be signs of a mental disorder are most characteristic of anxiety and behavioral disorders. Irritability, for example, can be associated with bipolar disorder, while depression can be a symptom of major depressive disorder. Anxiety and nervousness are signs of conditions like generalized anxiety disorder.
If marijuana withdrawal symptoms don’t improve in the weeks following quitting or seem to be accelerating, speaking to an addiction medicine counselor or therapist may be advised.
Quitting any addictive substance isn’t easy, and succeeding often requires significant willpower, a genuine desire to quit and, of course, help from a professional. However, there are a few things you can do to make quitting a little easier.
- Decide why you want to quit and solidify that reason; remind yourself of this during every painful moment
- Pick accountability partners, like friends or family members, and let them help you stay on the right path
- Throw away your supply so temptation can’t take over
- Avoid triggers, like places you used to smoke or people you used to smoke with
- Plan events without the use of drugs, like game nights, bowling or sports
- Set goals and reward yourself when you hit them, like buying a special item or taking a trip when you meet your sobriety objectives
As the side effects of quitting marijuana aren’t inherently dangerous, it’s possible to quit permanently without seeking intervention. However, this isn’t an option for everyone. If attempting to quit is causing damaging side effects associated with mental illness or you feel unequipped to put weed aside once and for all, a professional rehabilitation center might be the right choice for you.
If you or someone you love has been using weed to mask a mental health disorder or is having trouble quitting, rehabilitation is available. Contact FHE Health to learn more about overcoming addiction to drugs and alcohol.