What to Expect From Cannabis Withdrawal

Stopping marijuana can give way to a variety of symptoms

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

Overview

If you have been smoking pot heavily for at least a few months—whether as a regular pattern, in binges, or if you have become addicted—you may experience cannabis withdrawal if you abruptly stop smoking. Although cannabis withdrawal typically lasts one to two weeks, some marijuana users experience several weeks or months of withdrawal symptoms, known as post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

Why Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome Can Be a Barrier to Recovery

One person's experience of cannabis withdrawal might be quite different from another person's, and the severity depends on a whole host of factors. However, there are certain common symptoms that usually occur within 24 to 72 hours of stopping heavy use.

Irritability

Irritability can range from mild and relatively easily controlled annoyance, to excessive anger and even aggression. This is a normal reaction to withdrawing from cannabis, and employing some coping strategies can help you get through this period:

  • Stay physically active to help ease bodily tension.
  • Let friends and family members know that you need space.
  • Avoid situations that you find provoking, such as loud, crowded parties.

If the irritability lasts for more than a week, it is a good idea to seek support from a doctor, drug counselor, and/or psychologist, as it may be part of another 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 are a natural part of drug withdrawal. Avoiding anxiety-provoking people and situations is a good idea, as is practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation.

If you continue to feel anxious after a week of discontinuing cannabis, see a doctor. Cannabis use can sometimes cause substance-induced anxiety disorders, and there may have been an existing anxiety problem 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 benzodiazepine tranquilizers, which can present their own set of addiction issues. Fortunately, many non-addictive pharmacologic options exist for anxiety, as well as non-drug treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

In rare cases of withdrawal, anxiety can become paranoia, which may be a symptom of a more serious mental health problem, 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 American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM)-certified physician or a psychiatrist. Anxiety and paranoia are easily confused with each other, but with the proper diagnosis, they are both treatable.

Depression

Depression, or feeling an excessively unhappy mood accompanied by several other symptoms—like decreased interest in daily activities and difficulty concentrating—is another possibility of cannabis withdrawal. 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 themselves.

For example, many people who cease marijuana after using for several years can feel they have wasted a considerable part of their life. These feelings are normal and can often be used to bring about positive 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, but various strategies, like establishing sleep rituals and avoiding caffeine, can help.

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms are common among people withdrawing from marijuana and can include:

When to See a Doctor

In many cases, the symptoms will dissipate with time and can be treated without medical attention. However, if your symptoms are lasting for more than a couple of weeks, you should see your doctor or a mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing the symptoms of cannabis withdrawal can be unpleasant and may temporarily interfere with performance at work, school, and/or daily life. While withdrawing from marijuana use can present challenges, remember that what you are going through will pass and that you have made the choice to quit for a reason.

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Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
  • Justice Institute of British Columbia. Substance Use/Misuse Certificate Program. Victoria, BC, Canada: Justice Institute of BC; 2001.
  • Psych Central. Cannabis (Marijuana) Withdrawal. https://psychcentral.com/disorders/cannabis-marijuana-withdrawal/