What to Expect from Cannabis Withdrawal

What Happens When You Stop Smoking Weed

Model poses as a man experiencing cannabis withdrawal anxiety
Cannabis withdrawal can cause anxiety. Julia Fullerton-Batten

Cannabis Withdrawal Can Happen

Cannabis or marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug. And for years, it has been considered a soft drug, exempt from the usual concerns about addiction. However, research has shown that cannabis withdrawal can and does occur when heavy pot smokers discontinue, and the diagnostic criteria for Cannabis Withdrawal is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition or DSM-5.

What Cannabis Withdrawal Feels Like

This article is written to help you to understand what to expect if you suddenly stop smoking weed, or to help you understand what someone else is going through if they have recently stopped. It is not supposed to replace medical advice.

If you have been smoking pot heavily, almost daily, for at least a few months, whether as a regular pattern, in binges, or if you have become addicted, you may want to know what to expect if you stop smoking and go into cannabis withdrawal.

Although cannabis withdrawal lasts anywhere from a few days to a week or more, some marijuana users experience several weeks or months of withdrawal symptoms, known as post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

One person's experience of cannabis withdrawal might be quite different from another person's, and the severity depends an a whole host of factors. However, there are certain common symptoms that occur within a week of heavy use, which are outlined below.

Moodiness

One of the most noticable symptoms of cannabis withdrawal is moodiness, which can take the form of irritability, anxiety, or depression.

Irritability

Irritability can range from mild and relatively easily controlled annoyance, to excessive anger and even aggression. It is important to bear in mind that this is a normal reaction to withdrawing from cannabis, and to avoid taking your irritability too seriously, or hurting anyone else in the process.

Staying physically active can help dissipate tension that can build up in the body. Let friends and family members know that you need space, and avoid situations that you find provoking. If the irritability lasts for more than a week, it is a good idea to seek support from a doctor, drug counselor, or psychologist, as it may be part of a longer term issue that your cannabis use was masking.

Anxiety

Anxiety can be a symptom of both cannabis intoxication and cannabis withdrawal. The distinctive paranoid feelings that occur when high on marijuana are well known among users, but it can be worrying when anxiety continues or worsens after you quit. As with the irritability, remember that your fears are probably unfounded, and a natural part of drug withdrawal. Avoiding anxiety-provoking people and situations is a good idea, as is practicing relaxation.

However, if you continue to feel anxious after a week of discontinuing cannabis, it is a good idea to see a doctor. Sometimes, cannabis can cause substance-induced anxiety disorders, and sometimes there is an anxiety problem that was there before you started using cannabis.

Make sure you tell your doctor about the role of cannabis in how you are feeling -- if you just say you are anxious, you may be prescribed benzodiazapine tranquilizers, which can present their own set of addiction issues. Fortunately, many other non-addictive pharmacologic options, as well as non-drug treatments, exist for anxiety, such as CBT.

In rare cases, paranoia can be a symptom of a more serious mental health problem. Paranoia can be substance-induced, or it can be part of another mental illness, such as schizophrenia. If you experience extended paranoia, especially if you also experience hallucinations or delusions, it is very important to be properly assessed by a doctor with expertise in substance use disorders, such as an ABAM certified physician or a psychiatrist. These conditions are easily confused with each other, but with the proper diagnosis, they are all treatable.

Depression

Depression, or feeling an excessively unhappy mood accompanied by several other symptoms, is another way that cannabis withdrawal can affect your mood. You should try and keep your feelings in perspective — occasional depressed feelings are natural, but it is not unusual for people coming off cannabis to also become more aware of some of the negative consequences of their drug use, which can be quite depressing in itself. For example, many people who come off marijuana after using for several years can feel they have wasted a considerable part of their life. These feelings are normal, and can usually be used to bring about changes you want to make in your life.

If the feelings of depression don't lift after a week, or if making changes in your life seems overwhelming, seek help from your doctor or a drug counselor. As with other mood changes, depression can be substance induced, or pre-existing to your cannabis use, and is treatable. Making life changes is always challenging, but with the right support, can be transformative.

If you are having feelings of wanting to harm yourself or anyone else, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Sleep Problems

Sleep problems, such as insomnia (having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep), and having unusually vivid or disturbing dreams, are common during cannabis withdrawal.

However, this can be followed by periods of excessive sleepiness, fatigue, yawning, and difficulty concentrating.

Physical Discomfort

Physical symptoms are common among people withdrawing from cannabis, and can include stomach pain, changes in appetite, and subsequent weight loss or gain.

Flu like symptoms, such as headache, sweating, shakiness and tremors, fever and chills, are also common.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association. 2013.

Justice Institute of British Columbia. Substance Use/Misuse Certificate Program. Victoria, BC. 2001.

Continue Reading