People in recovery from addictions to drugs and alcohol often use the phrase, “staying quit.” Instead of trying to quit using drugs, and focusing on the one, brief moment in time in which they make a conscious decision not to use, they focus on all of the small steps and changes that need to take place each and every day to keep a user from relapsing to chronic drug use.
When it comes to staying quit, the drug marijuana might be one of the most difficult addictions to beat. While many people believe that marijuana is not addictive, and that it doesn’t cause any reproducible symptoms of withdrawal when people try to stop using it, the truth is that abrupt cessation of marijuana use can cause a variety of physical and mental symptoms that can drive a person back into habitual use.
A Gradual Acclimation
During detoxification, the body processes any remaining marijuana stored in the user’s body. In a way, it’s a bit like turning on an exhaust fan in a smoke-filled room. Slowly, but surely, that fan will blow the smoke out of the room until the air is clean and all traces of the smoke are removed. The process might not be quick, but eventually, the smoke traces will be removed. As the air clears, however, a person standing in the room must also become accustomed to breathing air that is not tinged with smoke. This could be the most difficult part of the detoxification process. After years of marijuana use and abuse, the body becomes accustomed to functioning in the presence of marijuana. When the drug is removed, some of the body’s natural processes might not work just as they should. Discomfort can quickly follow.
According to a study of people undergoing marijuana withdrawal published in the journal Addiction, common symptoms of adjustment include:
- Disturbances in sleep
- Changes in appetite
When listed in this way, marijuana withdrawal symptoms don’t seem strenuous. After all, many people experience these symptoms when they’re not taking drugs of any sort. People under a severe amount of stress at work, for example, might be unable to sleep and they might feel keyed up and restless most of the time. There is one main difference between people who feel these symptoms due to marijuana and people who feel these symptoms due to life itself: People with a history of marijuana use know exactly what to do to make the symptoms stop. They know that, by taking just one tiny drag of drugs, they can make the misery end. As the days drag on, it can seem like a completely reasonable thing to do.
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An Individualized Response
People who take very high doses of marijuana for long periods of time tend to have stronger symptoms of withdrawal than people who use small doses only briefly. This was the finding of a separate study published in the journal Addiction. Here, 57 percent of people studied reported symptoms of moderate severity, while 47 percent reported at least four severe symptoms. Those who used marijuana more frequently had an increased likelihood of developing severe symptoms. This is reasonable, as it’s likely these people had larger dependencies on marijuana and therefore their bodies had more adjustments to make before their symptoms seemed to return to a state that was normal.
While people use and abuse marijuana for all sorts of reasons, some people use the drug to help them deal with mental illnesses. Other people develop symptoms of mental illness due to their long history of marijuana abuse. These two factors may help to explain why the link between marijuana addiction and mental illness is so strong.
In a study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, adolescents with addictions to marijuana also had these mental illnesses:
- Conduct disorder
- Major depression
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Co-occurring addictions to tobacco and alcohol
People who have multiple issues all taking place at the same time, such as a mental illness and addiction or multiple addictions, tend to have a more difficult time with the withdrawal process. As their bodies adjust to the lack of marijuana, they might face an increase in mental health problems. Or, their subsequent addictions also cause their own withdrawal symptoms, increasing the overall misery the person is feeling.
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According to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, marijuana withdrawal symptoms tend to appear within one to three days of cessation of marijuana use, and they peak between days two and six. Effects tend to last for about 14 days. Since marijuana detoxification doesn’t usually cause life-threatening side effects, some people can choose to go through the process on their own at home.
People who do this might try to ease their symptoms by:
- Staying busy. Anxiety and stress can be hard to overcome when the mind is idle. Reading, knitting, gardening, playing solitaire or painting can provide important distractions.
- Chewing gum can help keep the hands and mouth busy. Marijuana smokers often find it hard to determine what to do with their hands and their mouths when they aren’t smoking. Finding useful substitutes may help.
- Walking, swimming or biking. Exercise can ease stress and make it easier to sleep.
- Taking warm baths and meditating before bedtime.
- Drinking a significant amount of water to help speed up the detoxification process.
- Reducing intake of fatty, salty processed foods. Some people undergoing marijuana withdrawal develop upset stomachs, and processed foods can make that discomfort more severe. Clear broths, gelatin and crackers might be better choices until the discomfort passes.
- Eliminating caffeinated drinks. Caffeine can increase insomnia and feelings of anxiety.
The major risk of going through marijuana detoxification alone is a return to drug use. People who live with others who take drugs, who have easy access to drugs near their home or who face serious, severe and long-lasting withdrawal symptoms may not be able to successfully complete the withdrawal process without help. The cravings to return to use might be much too strong and hard to ignore. These people may benefit from an inpatient marijuana detoxification program.
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People who abuse drugs like heroin are often provided with targeted drugs during detoxification. These drugs have been specifically designed to help replace the drugs the person used to take, and they can significantly reduce the unpleasant symptoms the person feels as the detoxification program moves forward. Unfortunately, no such drugs have been created to assist with marijuana detoxification. That doesn’t mean, however, that no medication options exist to assist with the detoxification process. For example, a study highlighted in an article in the Los Angeles Times found that the anticonvulsant drug gabapentin could reduce withdrawal symptoms in addicts, and people who took this medication were more likely to stop smoking marijuana than people who did not take the medication. This could be an important tool in the fight against chronic use and abuse of marijuana. In addition, some people going through marijuana withdrawal find relief through antianxiety medications or sleeping medications. As their symptoms are eased, they feel more relaxed and comfortable, and less likely to resort to marijuana use to make the symptoms stop.
In order to determine what medications to give, doctors might ask people in withdrawal to describe their physical symptoms as well as their state of mind. Then, they may prescribe medications as needed to allow the person to feel more comfortable and in control. Alternately, some clinics provide medications on a regular schedule in order to keep any withdrawal symptoms from taking hold in the first place. Either dosing schedule could be helpful.
In a top inpatient program, people in recovery might also be provided with a significant amount of social help. Group meetings, private counseling sessions and more might also help people to overcome feelings of stress and loss. In addition, in the controlled environment of a recovery program, it’s nearly impossible for a person to access marijuana. This could be the best help of all, especially for people who know they won’t be able to resist temptation to use on their own at home.
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The First Step
A detoxification program is just the first step an addict needs to take to recover. Once detox is over, a formal recovery program, such at the one we provide at Alta Mira, takes over and helps the addict make even more changes. People who go through detoxification at home need to enroll in the best addiction treatment program available to them as soon as possible, to ensure that they don’t lose momentum. People in an inpatient detox program might be referred to those programs by their therapists, or they might obtain detox services and therapy services all under one roof. Please contact us to find out more.
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