Uninterested? You May Have Amotivational Syndrome
By Nadia Khan
Updated December 17, 2018
Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
As the legalization of marijuana accelerates throughout the nation, many are beginning to wonder if this drug could have any harmful side effects. One often cited is "amotivational syndrome," a condition in which personalities are altered. Related effects range from apathy to impaired judgment; however, there is significant controversy surrounding amotivational syndrome's validity. Is marijuana truly the cause and if so, how much must be used to provoke these symptoms?
How Much Is Too Much?
Many studies have shown that "moderate" use of marijuana is not capable of altering one's personality or creating any significant impairments. However, conditions like amotivational syndrome are often said to arise in those who have been utilizing the drug for a long period, especially when they began at a young age.
The brain produces 2-AG and anandamide, which are chemicals that react to marijuana's effect on our system. These two chemicals are created and released by attaching to "receptors," offering a sensation of release and happiness, almost as a "reward."
However, this process is not infinite. If the receptors are activated too often, or too many times, they will disappear. Therefore, marijuana stops having the same effect due to an inability to find the decreased number of receptors. This often increases the amount of marijuana a person smokes (or consumes), as they seek the effect they could achieve when all receptors were present.
This is why long-term users are affected most severely, as they are more likely to have decreased their level of receptors over time. Those who began at a young age are also at a heightened risk, as smoking during a "formative" age may stunt the receptors' numbers and efficacy.
The important thing to note is that those receptors are not only important in the use of marijuana, but in everyday life. They also react to everything else bringing us joy - from the food we eat to small daily pleasures. Moreover, if they are blocked or destroyed by marijuana or anything else, attaining delight or excitement becomes increasingly difficult, and apathy and depression begin to settle in.
But how much do you have to smoke to experience these effects? How long must you have been using marijuana? These answers are not quite as clear. Genetics and age are said to be influencers, but generally, simply having used the drug long-term will begin to decrease receptors and in intense cases potentially cause amotivational syndrome.
Symptoms Of Amotivational Syndrome
For many, the feelings experienced from amotivational syndrome highly resemble depression. A sense is developed that there is no reason to live or strive to achieve, as pleasure and joy are blocked. In fact, the similarities between depression and amotivational syndrome are so similar, that some believe amotivational syndrome is simply a progression of a preexisting depression that did not entirely manifest itself until post-cannabis use, leading to confusion of the origin and potential misdiagnosis.
Many also report struggles with detachment, inability to plan in the long-term, lethargy, frustration, attention, and memory. Some even experience a regression into child-like tendencies, often becoming more introverted as well.
Research Behind Amotivational Syndrome
Most of the research into amotivational syndrome has utilized either observational reports or case-histories of those who use marijuana. While these are often valuable, they are not considered to offer the most exhaustive results - leading other experts in the field to view the data with skepticism.
In one test, a group of college students were analyzed in an attempt to extract marijuana use from other risk factors associated with amotivational syndrome. Their race, age, gender, personality types, mental health, alcohol and tobacco use, and self-efficacy levels were analyzed beforehand to develop a baseline of how marijuana might impact preexisting behavior.
The results implied that "chronic" marijuana users begin to exhibit the symptoms above of detachment, lethargy, memory issues, etc. There was also a significant level of "lower initiative and persistence" associated with marijuana use, even without chronic use. In a further study, it was found that tobacco and alcohol do not elicit these symptoms in the same manner as marijuana does. Authors of the study suggested that the present becomes the only time of importance to those with amotivational syndrome, and long-term planning or goals are often eliminated. However, the models utilized in the study are considered untenable, so while it may offer partial support of marijuana causing amotivational syndrome, further research is needed.
These studies have not been able to prove that the syndrome exists definitively, but they do show that performance in the workplace or at school is often diminished with the use of marijuana. Chronic use of marijuana has also been found to be correlated to lower grades and more drop-outs. However, there may be other circumstances intertwined with these statistics, such as: preexisting depression, lack of ambition, poverty, socioeconomic status, and other mental health issues that may lead individuals to utilize marijuana in the first place. Therefore, causality on the issue is very uncertain given the current data.
How Common is Amotivational Syndrome?
Amotivational syndrome is very uncommon, leading some to wonder if it can truly be attributed to marijuana use alone.
What Else Can Cause Amotivational Syndrome
SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are said to be another cause of amotivational syndrome. These drugs, like the popular Prozac or Zoloft, are used to treat clinical depression and have been said to prompt the same effects. As a result, many wonder whether marijuana is truly the reason for the syndrome, or potentially a combination of medications taken by the individual inflicted.
Another explanation for why those who take marijuana can suffer from amotivational syndrome is their access to a source instant gratification. Research has shown that other substances that offer instantaneous gratification - even food can result in amotivational syndrome as well.
While many believe marijuana certainly causes amotivational syndrome, further studies will be necessary to act as definitive evidence. In addition to the lack of data, many believe the drug cannot cause it due to how few people develop the condition in comparison to how many use marijuana. In fact, many believe that amotivational syndrome itself does not exist, but is simply a misdiagnosis of depression or chronic intoxication. It has been challenged by both pharmacological and behavioral standpoints.
One of the most well-known arguments against anti-motivational syndrome comes from Leo Hollister, an American professor emeritus of psychiatry, pharmacology, and medicine. He spent his career studying hallucinogenic drugs, along with their classifications and side effects. In 1986 he stated:
"Whether chronic use of cannabis changes the basic personality of the user so that he or she becomes less impelled to work and to strive for success has been a vexing question. As with other questions concerning cannabis use, it is difficult to separate consequences from possible causes of drug use … The demonstration of such a syndrome in field studies has been unsuccessful … Laboratory studies have provided only scant evidence for this concept … If this syndrome is so difficult to prove, why does concern about it persist?
Mainly because of clinical observations. One cannot help being impressed by the fact that many promising youngsters change their goals in life drastically after entering the illicit drug culture, usually by way of cannabis. While it is impossible to be certain that these changes were caused by the drug (one might equally argue that the use of drug followed the decision to change lifestyle), the consequences are often sad. With cannabis as with most other pleasures, moderation is the keyword."
Other experts agree, stating that the evidence simply is not strong enough to assume causality. Once again, further research will be necessary to answer these questions conclusively.
If you do have amotivational syndrome, how can you treat it? Many suggest a change in lifestyle, often staying away from drugs, including cannabis, entirely.
Not only is separation from the drug a method of treatment, but even stepping away from anything that acts as a link or reminder to it - such as the place you used to smoke, or the friends you would smoke with.
However, the most important step is usually therapy, along with a strong support system. Behavioral therapy assists many who have been effective via assertiveness training, the building of self-control skills, and more.
Regardless of whether or not amotivational syndrome can truly stem from marijuana use, it is important to avoid the possibility. If you, or someone around you, begin to suffer from personality changes, becoming disinterested in what previously brought joy, it is important to see a mental health expert. They will be able to analyze whether you might have amotivational syndrome and can assist you in reducing your marijuana intake, or diagnose the issue as it may be depression, bipolar disorder, or a range of other conditions. To take your mental health into your own hands, contact an online counselor from the comfort of your own home at https://www.betterhelp.com/start/.