Understanding Marijuana's Effect on Brain FunctionAlthough much is still unknown about the effects of marijuana use, there is ample evidence to suggest that marijuana has both short term and long term effects on brain function. Short term effects are experienced immediately, while long term effects are the result of a prolonged substance use disorder.

Marijuana’s Short Term Effects on Brain Function

When someone smokes marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) quickly enters the bloodstream from the lungs. As the chemical is carried to the brain, it affects the cannabinoid receptors that generate a series of cellular reactions to create the high associated with the drug.

Different areas of the brain have different concentrations of cannabinoid receptors, but the highest density is found in the parts of the brain that control memory, concentration, coordination, and sensory perception. The most compelling evidence of marijuana’s short term effect on brain function is the fact that marijuana is the illicit drug most often found in the blood of drivers involved in vehicle crashes.

The most noticeable short term effects on judgement, problem solving, and coordination fade within 24 hours, but effects can still be felt as long as THC is in your system. Regular smokers can have positive urine test results 45 days after their last use, with heavy smokers having positive tests up to 90 days after quitting. During this time frame, it’s common for marijuana users to experience sleep problems and difficulty learning new facts or skills.

Marijuana’s Long Term Effects on Brain Function

It may seem reasonable to assume that marijuana only affects the brain as long as THC remains in the body. However, this is not true. A number of studies have shown cognitive impairment in the brains of those who use marijuana regularly but were not under the influence at the time of evaluation.  

Studies asking for self-reported data have found that heavy marijuana use during the teen or early adult years is linked with poor academic performance, greater unemployment, increased welfare dependence, and lower life satisfaction.

MRI brain scans of marijuana users who began smoking in their teens found impairment in the neural connections between the brain’s left and right hemispheres as compared to their peers who had never used marijuana. This suggests that using marijuana during adolescence can result in poorer internal brain communication. Although the brain can change and develop throughout one’s entire lifespan, the most significant periods of growth occur before age 21.

A New Zealand study found that people who begin using marijuana in their teens had lower IQs in their 30s compared to their childhood test results. The decline in IQ was most significant in the youngest and heaviest marijuana users.

A survey of people who lived with frequent marijuana smokers asked about whether the smokers frequently experienced difficulty with memory or cognitive tasks. The survey found marijuana use that began in the teen years was associated with an increased difficulty in remembering facts and figures later in life.

Marijuana’s Link to Psychiatric Disorders

There have been studies linking marijuana use to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, it is unknown to what extent marijuana actually causes psychiatric conditions.

The same genetic and environmental risk factors that play a role in substance abuse are also linked to a higher risk of mental health disorders. It is also commonly accepted that a portion of people with mental health conditions will turn to marijuana as a way to self-medicate the most bothersome symptoms of their condition. If their mental health issues are properly addressed, they no longer feel the need to engage in substance abuse.

Effect of Prenatal Marijuana Exposure

It is very difficult for researchers to ethically study the effect of prenatal marijuana exposure, but studies following the children of women who self-reported marijuana use during pregnancy have found an increased risk of hyperactivity and developmental disorders. Evidence is mixed as to whether marijuana use is linked to premature birth, but research indicates pregnant women who use marijuana are 2.3 times more likely to experience a stillbirth.

Impact of Rising Potency on Brain Function

Test of confiscated marijuana have shown that THC levels are rising rapidly. In the 1990s, the average THC content was about 3.7%. By 2014, THC content had jumped to 6.1%. The newer practice of dabbing, smoking or eating THC-rich hash oil from a marijuana plant, can deliver more than 50% THC.

Rising THC levels are concerning to healthcare professionals because they are thought to increase the negative effects of marijuana on both short term and long term brain function.

By Dana Hinders







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Using Writing to Further Your RecoveryWhile it won’t cure substance abuse issues on its own, writing offers many therapeutic benefits to people in recovery. Even if you’ve never had the urge to jot down your thoughts in the past, writing can be a powerful tool for physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

How Writing Helps in Addiction Recovery

In today’s fast-paced world, many people jump from one activity to another without ever pausing to consider the consequences of the choices they make. Those who struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol are often even more frantic—using substance abuse to avoid uncomfortable self-reflection.

Writing allows you to take the time to contemplate your life story without any outside distractions. It’s a way to better understand your past, present, and future.

Some of the benefits of writing while in recovery include:

  • Processing past trauma, such as physical or verbal abuse
  • Coping with loss, such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship because of your addiction
  • Understanding the roots of your addiction
  • Tackling challenges associated with co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression
  • Taking a second look at your emotional response to specific situations
  • Reframing your thoughts on specific recovery challenges
  • Acting as a distraction technique for coping with cravings
  • Documenting your progress so you can see how far you’ve come when you’re feeling discouraged
  • Gaining a better understanding of your personal strengths and weaknesses

Anyone can benefit from writing while in recovery, but this activity is particularly helpful for those with more introverted personalities. If you struggle to feel comfortable sharing openly in a group, writing down your thoughts may be a way to process issues on your own terms. Finding a way to open up without fear, anxiety, or shame can give you the boost you need to continue moving forward in your recovery.

How to Get Started

The act of writing is a highly individual process, so there is no right or wrong way to go about incorporating writing into your recovery plan. Depending on your preferences, your writing can take many forms. For example:

  • Private journal entry
  • Letter to a friend
  • Memoir
  • List
  • Song lyrics
  • Poetry
  • Short story
  • Novel

Some prompts you might use include:

  • Write a letter to yourself as a child, teen, or young adult
  • Describe the moment that make you realize you needed to seek addiction treatment
  • Explain how you handle your cravings
  • Describe how you imagine your life after six months, one year, two years, etc. in recovery
  • List all of your recovery accomplishments and describe how they make you feel
  • Write a letter to a friend or family member who has supported you throughout your recovery journey

Although typing may seem like the natural choice, the old-fashioned method of putting pen to paper may help you connect with your emotions on a primal level. Use whatever method feels most natural.

The best way to overcome writer’s block is to make writing a part of your daily routine. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning or end of each day to write, preferably in a quiet place with no distractions.

As you write, don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. Focus simply on getting your thoughts down on paper. You can always edit and revise at a later date if you feel it’s necessary. Remember, even professional writers don’t create award-winning prose on the first try.

Sharing Your Work

It’s fine to want to keep your writing private. However, sharing your work with a broader audience can offer a number of advantages as well. For example:

  • Positive feedback that boosts self-esteem
  • Emotional satisfaction from helping others with their recovery journey
  • Feeling less isolated as you learn how others have connected to your addiction and recovery story.
  • Reader insights that make you think about your specific recovery challenges in a new way

In addition to sharing with your counselor or the members of your 12-step group, you may choose to seek out writing workshops for people in recovery or to start a blog.

Tapping into the Power of Creativity to Make a New Life for Yourself

You may find that you enjoy writing exclusively, but writing can also be combined with other holistic therapies for addiction recovery. Music, art, or dance therapy can all be used to explore many of the same issues while providing a creative outlet. No matter what path you choose to pursue, finding sober ways to express yourself can help you build a future without the burdens of addiction.

By Dana Hinders

To learn more about our programs, please visit our website.

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What is a functioning alcoholic?Alcoholism can take many forms. While some people end up on the streets or incarcerated as a consequence of their addiction, many others continue to lead outwardly successful lives while struggling with their inner demons.

About High Functioning Alcoholism

Someone with high functioning alcoholism is able to hold down a job, socialize with friends, and maintain intimate personal relationships while demonstrating a pattern of dysfunctional drinking behavior. High functioning alcoholics still suffer from an addiction, but it’s harder to see evidence of the problem unless you’re looking very closely.

A functioning alcoholic may be able to hide the signs of a drinking problem by restricting drinking only to certain times or in certain situations. However, many functioning alcoholics are successful in hiding the signs of their addiction because they have someone in their life who is unconsciously encouraging or enabling the addiction by allowing them to avoid the consequences of their behavior. For example, this person may loan them money when they’ve overspent on alcohol or make excuses on their behalf when they’re too hungover to go to work or attend a social engagement.

High functioning alcoholics are more common than you might expect. Studies estimate that nearly 20 percent  of alcoholics meet these criteria. Of these functioning alcoholics, about 1 in 3 have a multigenerational family history of substance abuse.

High functioning alcoholics are often intelligent, hardworking, and educated people who are actively involved in the community. They may be your coworker, your next-door neighbor, or your best friend.

Problems Associated with High Functioning Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Over time, tolerance to alcohol increases. This leads to increased consumption, eventually to the point where a high functioning alcoholic starts to experience the adverse lifestyle consequences we all traditionally associate with alcoholism.

In cases where a high functioning alcoholic works in a professional role responsible for the safety and welfare of others, the consequences of substance abuse could be disastrous. For example:

  • A doctor could make a mistake that harms a patient.
  • A lawyer’s mistake could land his client in jail.
  • A CEO’s poor business decisions could put the entire company in jeopardy.

It’s also worth pointing out that even someone who drinks excessively while maintaining the outward trappings of a successful life is still causing a great deal of physical damage. Some of the many health problems associated with alcoholism include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Mouth, throat, liver, breast, and/or colorectal cancer
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Gout
  • Seizures
  • Anemia
  • Depression
  • Nerve damage

Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic

Traditionally, substance abuse disorders are defined by having alcohol-related problems with your personal relationships, career, finances, and/or the law. However, identifying a high functioning alcoholic requires taking a closer look at drinking-related behaviors.

Signs a person may need substance abuse treatment include:

  • Engaging in binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women or five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men
  • Relying on alcohol to feel powerful, confident, and in control
  • Drinking to handle mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking in the mornings
  • Frequently finding yourself drinking more than you intended to
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol
  • Saying things you didn’t mean while you were drinking
  • Having trouble remembering the details of what happens when you were drinking
  • Being secretive or defensive about alcohol use

Dealing with Denial

Denial is the most common challenge associated with getting a high functioning alcoholic to seek treatment. These individuals honestly believe their alcohol use is under control. Since they’re not unemployed or in trouble with the law, they don’t feel they meet the same standard as the alcoholics portrayed in popular culture. In many cases, they think only someone who has hit “rock bottom” meets the criteria for alcoholism.

Staging an intervention is one tactic that may be effective in getting a high functioning alcoholic to seek treatment. An intervention is a structured meeting where friends and family present their concerns to the person who is abusing alcohol or drugs, offer treatment options, and state the consequences for refusing treatment. For example, a wife may share that she is worried about her husband’s alcohol-related health problems and concerned that the children have noticed their father is absent from social events when he’s been drinking. As a consequence, she might state that she wants a separation if her husband doesn’t seek treatment.

Interventions are not 100 percent effective, but a well-planned intervention using the services of a licensed counselor, social worker, psychiatrist, or psychologist could be just the push your loved one needs to get help.

By Dana Hinders

To learn more about our programs, please visit our website.

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