Marijuana and the Teenage Brain

Marijuana and the Teenage Brain

There are two things that are certain about marijuana. The first is that it doesn’t discriminate, attaching itself to all different lives – fortunate, unfortunate, happy, sad, educated, wealthy, poor. The second is that whatever the life it attaches to, marijuana will do damage if it stays.

It has been proven beyond doubt that frequent marijuana use damages the brains of teenagers and young adults.

Throughout adolescence and into the mid-20s, the brain continues to develop in ways that are critical for higher-order thinking and executive functioning (memory, reasoning, problem solving). White matter, which is important for neural efficiency, increases in quality and volume into the early 30s.

Given that adolescence is such an important developmental period for the brain, exposure to drugs during this time has a greater impact on the brain than it does during adulthood.

Psychologists have noted the effects to include cognitive decline, poor attention and memory and diminished IQ.

‘It needs to be emphasised that regular cannabis use, which we consider once a week, is not safe and may result in addiction and neurocognitive damage, especially in youth.’ Dr Krista Lisdahl, a director of the brain imaging and neuropsychology lab at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In a 2012 longitudinal study of 1037 participants who were followed from birth to age 38, it was found that those who regularly used marijuana lost on average of 5.8 IQ points by the time they reach adulthood. This was compared to those who never regularly used marijuana whose IQ slightly increased by 0.8 IQ points from childhood to adulthood.

The physiological evidence is clear.

Brain scans of regular marijuana users show significant structural changes including abnormalities in the brain’s gray matter. These abnormalities are associated with reduced cognitive function, increased mood symptoms and poor memory. These changes have been found in users as young as 16 and were not related to major medical conditions, prenatal drug exposure, developmental delays and learning disabilities.

These findings are not intended to push against the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Rather, it should highlight the need to implement stringent conditions on access.

‘When considering legalization, policymakers need to address ways to prevent easy access to marijuana and provide additional treatment funding for adolescent and young adult users,’ Lisdahl explained.

In considering legalisation of the marijuana, weight also needs to be given to regulating the levels of psychoactivetetrahydrocannabinol (THC – the chemical responsible for the majority of marijuana’s psychological effects) to reduce the potential neurocognitive effects.

There is research evidence that has linked frequent use of high levels of THC to depression, anxiety and psychosis.

According to Dr Alan Budney of the Department of Psychiatry at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, ‘Recent studies suggest that this relationship between marijuana and mental illness may be moderated by how often marijuana is used and potency of the substance. Unfortunately, much of what we know from earlier research is based on smoking marijuana with much lower doses of THC than are commonly used today.’

In a 2013 study of over 17,482 teenagers, marijuana use was found to be higher among teenagers from countries that had a more accepting attitude towards medical marijuana. Greater tolerance of marijuana for medicinal purposes seems to promote a greater tolerance for the drug generally, at least by adolescents, possibly because of a diminished perception of the risks associated with the drug.

The risks of marijuana on the developing brain have been extensively documented. The debate around the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes is in full swing. Should this end on medicinal marijuana being approved, research points to the importance of consideration being given to restricting access, reducing the potency of THC and raising awareness, particularly in adolescents, on the risks of recreational use.

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George W

Could the link between marijuana and depression, anxiety and psychosis be as a result of higher use among these type of people rather than causing these mental issues directly?

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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