Without motivation we’re destined to float aimlessly down the river of life at the mercy of the wind, never knowing where we’re going or why.
If we don’t have the wherewithal to make things happen, things will only ever happen to us – never because of us.
And that kind of chronic passivity can easily evolve into feelings of hopelessness.
Such is the path for many cannabis users.
Ask a pot smoker why they smoke, and chances are they’ll tell you how it relaxes them, how it lets them escape the pressures of daily life.
Pot smokers often report increased creativity, alleviation of physical pain, and a sense of lifestyle. And for those who smoke socially, it can also meet a need for community.
I think we need to respect what people feel cannabis does for them when treating cannabis addiction. Cannabis addicts come to feel they’ve become trapped by their weed habit, that they’ve lost their volition. They feel they have to smoke, as a compulsion rather than a choice.
In this way, cannabis consumption is a double-edged sword.
Be prepared for an emotional reaction
It’s not all bad, or at least it doesn’t seem that way to those who indulge in it. But I think there’s a bit of a taboo when it comes to questioning just how good it really is for us.
Many cannabis users can get up in arms at even the suggestion that it may be detrimental to health. So when we discuss the effects of cannabis on mental and physical health, be they good or bad, we need to be prepared for some highly emotional responses.
I overheard someone say once that it seemed ‘right wing’ to suggest that cannabis could severely damage a person. This kind of bias doesn’t help anyone. We need to get beyond prejudices of all kinds and look at the facts.
Cannabis, the thief
Recently I did a live Q&A call with practitioners attending our online course ‘How to Stop Anyone Smoking’. I took a question about treating someone who wants to stop smoking both weed and tobacco at the same time. And you can listen to my answer, and read the transcript, below.
As you’ll see in my answer, there are different things to consider. One thing we can do is look at the psychoactive effects of smoking weed over time, especially in large amounts.
Weed steals from people. It charms and comforts and convinces, even as it sucks away the very marrow of existence. And as with all destructive relationships, the victim can and often does defend the hand that beats them.
When treating tobacco smoking we can personify the pattern to defamiliarize it so that it’s easier to detach from. For example we can describe the addiction as being like a relationship with a highly manipulative person or being enthralled by a con man or enslaved by a tyrant.
Educate clients about the negative effects
Many weed smokers don’t know about some of the effects of cannabis. They don’t know, for instance, that it inhibits acetylcholine, which is crucial for REM sleep. Or that it inhibits noradrenaline, which promotes physical and mental arousal and heightens mood. Or that it inhibits glutamate, which is involved with long-term memory and consolidation of learning.
Funnily enough, not long after the Q&A, I noticed an item in the news about the first longitudinal study of the brain changes that occur in heavy weed smokers over time.
The research finds that heavy cannabis usage leads to a long-term reduction in dopamine levels in the brain. Researchers already suspected this, but it’s only now that a massive longitudinal study has been conducted that we can prove cause and effect.
So why does this matter?
Marijuana and the loss of motivation
Dopamine is our motivation chemical (part of the so-called ‘reward pathway’ in the brain). Cannabis releases dopamine artificially – this is part of the reason people enjoy its effects.
But when that artificial release occurs too often, natural release seems to be impaired. We become unable to produce dopamine in response to normal life events.
This is not a new principle. Consider this:
- Bodybuilders who inject anabolic steroids may suffer shrunken testicles. Why? They are receiving so much artificial testosterone that their testes no longer need to produce it themselves.
- If a person with functioning legs were to use a wheelchair for many years, eventually their legs wouldn’t work properly. Why? Their muscles would waste away from disuse.
Likewise, if the dopamine reward pathway is continually activated artificially, as occurs with cannabis consumption, eventually it will lose the ability to work independently.
This is potentially a massive problem, because as motivation dries up and we lose the fulfilment that once came from learning or seeing a beautiful sunset, life outside of the drug becomes limp and meaningless.
Motivation is a central part of what it is to be alive, and without it we can quickly come to feel helpless.
I explained all this in my Q&A response, but it was serendipitous that the research was highlighted in the press a few days later.
You can read the transcript or listen to the audio excerpt below.
Let’s go to Dirk in Leicester, who asks, “Hi, Mark. Do you have any advice when a client gives up smoking and weed at the same time? Or alternatively, another client is giving up smoking and drinking booze, drinking alcohol, at the same time.”
It’s quite a big subject. I’ll talk a little bit at length about weed, so thanks Dirk, for that.
We have to remember that in a sense, as far as weed is concerned, the public has to some extent been misinformed as to the harm that weed can do to people.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it’s almost a taboo in some parts of society to even describe cannabis in unflattering terms. It’s as if somehow it’s anti-liberal to suggest that weed addiction can actually be highly damaging.
It’s something I’ve noticed, but maybe you haven’t seen that.
Avoid blanket criticism
To solely criticize weed usage can backfire. This is the thing.
If we criticize the form of self-harm, it can backfire, just like solely criticizing someone’s abusive partner, especially while they’re still in thrall to them, they can still be attracted to this person. It can really backfire and have that person start defending the abuser even more.
It’s the rubber band effect. We have to be careful about that.
The weed paradox
Talking about weed or cannabis or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, there’s a paradox.
Those who smoke weed will often say it helps their mental health, but there does seem to be plenty of evidence that it can be highly harmful to mental health.
So what is that paradox about? Why do people who smoke weed often say it’s a really good thing, and researchers say, “Well, we don’t find this”?
For some people, smoking weed may be a wonky way of meeting basic emotional needs, maybe a sense of social inclusion if they mix in a weed-smoking culture, or smoking weed might be an artificial way of meeting human needs for purpose, or meaning, or sense of identity.
The weed starts to posture itself as actually being who the person is, just as smokers feel that they are ‘a smoker’ sometimes.
It might meet the need for ritual, or escapism from an incomplete life, and so on.
Weed usage might seem to be meeting needs, just as when you’re desperately thirsty, drinking vegetable oil might seem like a viable way of meeting the need to hydrate the body.
Weed users often say cannabis relaxes them. Relaxation, of course, is a very real human need. It’s associated with the need to feel safe, and then also recuperate.
Why might it feel relaxing for some people to smoke weed?
I think the way to think about weed is to understand that it inhibits certain neurotransmitters.
It inhibits glutamate, which is there for forging links between neurons concerned with forming long-term memory and the consolidation of learning.
So weed can undermine learning and the consolidation of memories.
It also inhibits noradrenaline, which as you probably know triggers physical and mental arousal and heightens mood.
If physical and mental arousal are being prevented, then the restriction on arousal can feel relaxing – but it comes at a cost.
Undermined motivation chemicals
There’s another neurotransmitter that weed consumption greatly inhibits, and that’s one that is part of the so-called reward mechanism in the brain. That’s dopamine, which you may have heard of.
It’s not the reward neurotransmitter people often think, but it’s more to do with motivation. It’s a motivation chemical. Dopamine drives motivation.
When dopamine is undermined and restricted, then motivation becomes restricted. Without motivation, human beings are stripped of their potential.
Not to have motivation can be a fake way of feeling relaxed, a really roundabout way. If you don’t feel motivated to do anything because your dopamine is being inhibited, then the paralysis can feel like relaxation.
You can be tied down in heavy chains and feel that you’re resting, when in fact, you can’t move. Your volition, what makes you fundamentally human, has been stripped from you.
The loss of a good night’s sleep
Finally, the other transmitter that weed steals or inhibits the function of is acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is connected with attention, learning, and memory, but crucially also with the promotion of REM sleep.
When REM sleep is restricted during sleep, then our reality filters during waking can be damaged.
REM reality breaks out uncontrollably into waking life for some people when their REM at night is restricted, leading to psychosis and paranoia in some people, probably in people prone to paranoia and psychosis.
So many weed smokers don’t know about this stuff, the basic psychoactive effects of what weed inhibits. We can use this in our way of working with a weed smoker if they want to stop smoking weed.
Relaxing naturally doesn’t steal anything from a person, and promotes a healthy balance of neurotransmitters in the brain.
So I suggest we find ways to communicate some of what tetrahydrocannabinol really steals from people to our weed-smoking clients. There may be a fair bit of pro-weed propaganda reinforcing the habit on an unconscious level.
The smoking/drinking interconnection
Going back to the weed and smoking nicotine, I think we can certainly deal with both of them. If not in the same session, perhaps in consecutive sessions, but often in the same session.
As far as stopping smoking and drinking at the same time is concerned, I think we need to consider how interconnected these patterns are. Often people have trained themselves to feel there is a natural association between the two behaviours.
It might actually be better to help the person break free of both at once, depending on what’s going on for the person in their wider life.
If they’re struggling in many ways, then we may want to take a bit longer getting them off the alcohol. If they’re a chronic alcoholic, then it may be a medical situation for them to come off alcohol.
But for most people, they can come off alcohol without needing to be hospitalized for physical damage.
Certainly, so often, smoking and drinking are entwined, so getting rid of or cutting down significantly on both at the same time, or getting rid of both at the same time, may be an option depending on how entwined these habits are.
If the person drinks but never smokes when they drink, or never drinks when they smoke, then you might have the option of dealing with the two separately.
But otherwise, they’re entwined behaviours. They’re part of the same continuum of behaviour, and we might deal with them as one entity.
Okay. Thank you, Mark. There’s a huge amount of information there. Very, very useful stuff.
Here’s something I’ve learned from my own experience of working with people who are either trying to give up tobacco and marijuana at the same time, or people who are actually wanting to just work on the marijuana and eliminate that from their life.
This kind of information, when you explain it to them, and again not in a moralizing way, not in a judgmental way, but really just understanding what weed’s been stealing from them, and the way it’s been stealing those natural neurotransmitters, and the con of it, that can be such a huge reframe.
It can really open their eyes to the way that it’s been tricking them.
My point is, I highly recommend listening back to what Mark’s just been talking about and taking notes, even more notes if you’ve been taking notes, so that it’s something that you can feel comfortable educating clients about.
That matter-of-fact, very friendly, genial way that Mark explains it can be deceptively powerful when you use that same kind of communication style in working with clients. It’s just making sense of how cannabis and weed steals from people.
And you can listen to the audio from this Q&A excerpt here:
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