Marijuana or loneliness – which poses a greater threat to health?

Surprising results may lead to new treatments, but risks remain.

Loneliness is far more dangerous to our health than most people realize. Being lonely suppresses immune system functioning, puts us at greater risk for depression, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease, and generally increases our chances of an early death by 14%. Add in the burden of unrelenting emotional pain and it is clear that loneliness is an incredibly damaging emotional condition with devastating impacts on both our quality of life and longevity.Consequently, scientists and psychologists are investigating a variety of approaches to alleviate the devastating effects of chronic loneliness. What makes loneliness difficult to treat is that the sharp emotional pain people feel often causes avoidance behaviors that minimize the person’s risk of further rejection on the one hand, but maintains their isolation on the other.

For others, avoidance is not the issue, as loneliness is a consequence of a specific life circumstances (e.g., being severely disabled and limited in mobility, having serious illness, being new in their communities, etc…). Nonetheless, the emotional pain they experience as a result of their social or emotional isolation is just as harsh.

Why Marijuana?

One of the more unexpected findings of recent research efforts is what happens in our brains when we feel rejected or excluded. The mechanisms in the brain that respond to rejection and social exclusion (i.e., social or emotional pain) are heavily linked to the mechanisms in our brain that respond to physical pain—which is why rejection and loneliness hurt so much.

It is this link that prompted me previously to write about experiments that showed how taking Acetaminophen (Tylenol) was effective in reducing the emotional pain associated with stinging rejection.

But what exactly makes Acetaminophen effective against social and emotional pain?

Acetaminophen is available as an over-the-counter pain reliever, but it is also a cannabinoid and it binds to a receptor in our brain called cannabinoid 1. THC, the major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (which is also known as cannabis) is also a cannabinoid and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) binds to the same cannabinoid receptor as Acetaminophen. Indeed, medical marijuana is often prescribed for its pain-relieving effects. Therefore, it was hardly a stretch for researchers to explore the effects of marijuana on the social pain elicited by rejection and loneliness. Another recent study in the journal Health Psychology reported that loneliness presented a significant risk factor for a cluster of symptoms that includes pain, fatigue, and depression.

Studies of Marijuana and Social Pain

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.

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.

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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011. Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association. In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology, and blogs for Huffington Post.