Marijuana vs Loneliness

Timothy Deckman & Nathan DeWall from the University of Kentucky, Lexington and their colleagues conducted a series of four studies. Using a large database, they found that lonely people who used marijuana had higher feelings of self-worth and rated their mental health as better than lonely people who did not use marijuana. Further, lonely marijuana users were less likely to suffer from episodes of major depression (as diagnosed by clinicians) than lonely non-marijuana users.

Going further, the researchers then tracked high-school students for three years. After establishing baselines for loneliness and marijuana use, they found that lonely students who did not use marijuana were significantly more depressed two years later than lonely students who did use marijuana. In other words, marijuana buffered the effects of loneliness and limited the extent to which it (and other loneliness-related variables) led to clinical depression.

In a fourth experimental study, researchers induced feelings of rejection in participants by using a rigged computer game that excluded them from a social interaction (a paradigm that has been used many times in studies of rejection). They found that active marijuana users reported less emotional pain as a result of the social exclusion experiment than participants who did not use marijuana, or who used it infrequently (these were college kids…).

In summarizing their work the researchers concluded, “After four studies, we found that marijuana buffered the lonely from: negative self-ratings of self-worth and mental health, depression over time, and even distress following exclusion.”

Treating Symptoms vs. Fixing the Problem

The researchers emphasize they are not condoning the use of marijuana and point out that there are many negative consequences of marijuana use. They hope only to offer insight into why marijuana is the most widely-used illicit drug in the United States and, to that end, they suggest people might be using the drug to better manage feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Their caution is well founded.

To truly emerge from loneliness, a person has to create new social connections and/or to deepen their emotional bonds with existing people in their lives. Deepening existing connections is important because of the subjective nature of loneliness. For example, many people in long-term relationships are extremely lonely despite living with a significant other. (Read Are You Married but Lonely?)

But this is where marijuana might actually be problematic for lonely people: One of the negative consequences of frequent marijuana use is its tendency to induce lethargy in some people and to hamper motivation. As a result, marijuana might dampen the pain of social/emotional isolation on the one hand but reduce a person’s motivation to take action that could alleviate their isolation on the other.

Therefore, marijuana should by no means be considered a cure for loneliness but it might certainly provide significant symptom relief for those who do not have the option, for a variety of reasons, to take actions that could enhance their social or emotional bonds. Others should be cautioned that using marijuana for symptom relief might have a detrimental effect when it comes to conceiving and taking steps to remedy their isolation.

More at: Psychology Today

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