Can Weed Alter Our Emotional Intelligence?

Our emotional intelligence is what makes us who we are. Weed can help in many ways, but when does it start to work against us?

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest. 

Emotional intelligence has more influence over our lives than we think. It dictates most of our emotionally-based decision making. Weed helps with anxiety, mood, appetite, and pain; but it also has its pitfalls when it's not used for the right reasons. 

Weed legalisation is becoming inevitable. Most dispensaries across the U.S. have been deemed as 'essential' during the current COVID pandemic, and state-by-state lists for qualifying conditions for medicinal use is growing. However, while the cannabis industry is growing, so is the risk of dependence. Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) cases are on the rise in states where recreational weed is legal. Albeit, not everyone who frequently smokes weed can become addicted, however, it begs the question: how else can weed alter our mental state?  

Our endocannabinoid system is reward-based. This means that too much weed can alter our emotional attention and decision-making processing. Weed can alter a lot if we're not too careful. And our emotional intelligence is pretty important. 

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Think about your emotional maturity in the past decade or so; the lessons you've learned between your current relationships and your previous ones. Are you more empathetic towards others? Have you learned how to handle your frustrations better? Are you more confident around people? These are all indicators of emotional intelligence (EQ – or EI depending on where you look). 

EQ drives our interactions with people. It's how we handle ourselves emotionally and primarily focuses on five key traits: 

  • Self Awareness: Being aware of our own emotions is a powerful tool. If we are aware of them, then we can better manage them. It's the difference between acknowledging that you made a mistake compared to when you might have previously blamed others. 
  • Self-Regulation: Self-regulation revolves how long you can let your emotions get the better of you. We can rarely control when we react to something, but we can control how we react and how to move forward. This includes our ability to adapt and practice conscientiousness.
  • Motivation: Motivation (obviously) is what triggers us to get up in the morning. However, it can be easy to lose motivation if we don't train our mindset. Commitment, optimism, drive, and initiative result in reframing our mindset into achieving a goal. Of course, motivation comes in many different forms. Some days, it's easier to motivate ourselves to have a Netflix day, rather than working from home (thanks, Covid-19). Nonetheless, motivation is an important indicator for our EQ. 
  • Empathy: Empathy is probably one of the strongest indicators of our EQ because it revolves around our ability to recognise how other people feel. Empathy is that little voice telling us to give someone a hug when they look upset.
  • Social Skills: We all know someone who has remarkable people skills. They're great at negotiating, communicating, dissolving conflict, and have great leadership capabilities. Our ability to develop bonds with other people is a key marker in our EQ.

Why is EQ so Important? 

Emotional Intelligence is based in our limbic system, located in the center of our brain. Our limbic system includes structures like the amygdala and the hippocampus and is responsible for our emotional regulation. 

These structures store all of our experiences throughout our lives and convert them into meaning. Subsequently leading us to learn from our mistakes, guide us into future decision making, and associating our memories with feelings. The limbic system is essentially known as our 'emotional brain'. 

Whether we recognize it or not, our EQ has more harness over our everyday decisions than we give it credit for. It's the reason why we feel like we've evolved from one relationship to the next; it's what makes us realize that yelling at someone doesn't make you feel better because it didn't the last time. These are all choices based on one's ability to adapt, motivate, and overcome emotional stress. And our EQ is behind it all. 

Weed can do a lot of good, but, like anything, it can have negative effects if it's not used appropriately. Our mental health can be fickle if it's not treated with care. So how can weed make us less emotionally intelligent? 

Can Weed dictate our EQ? 

Since its discovery in the 1980s, the endocannabinoid system has been the focus of much-needed research into how cannabis can affect our brain. 

Yes, it can make us happy and feel mellow, but this isn't the case for everyone. What most of us fail to realise is that weed can elicit different responses in different people. More importantly, our mental state at the time of consumption can also affect the type of high we have. 

For example, when people are more anxious they are more likely to experience paranoia. Using cannabis as a way to avoid negative emotions are more likely to become dependent than those who try it as a means to experiment. 

Now, we're not saying that smoking weed equals addiction or lower Emotional Intelligence – it's not as simple as that. We do know, however, that cannabis users – more so chronic, long-term users – can have lower levels of emotional processing. In fact, studies show that while THC increases in the body, the signals of emotional processing decrease. 

One study shows that cannabis users felt that they were not able to clearly identify with their emotions. This means, that their feelings of clarity would severely impact their emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and empathy. Another study shows that chronic, long-term weed use has also been linked to overall lower EQ than non-users.

The P3 Wave Study

One study in 2016 investigated cannabis use on emotional processing by observing the "P3 event-related potential". The P3 wave is the electrical activity in the brain that marks a person's emotionally-based attention. Participants P3 waves were monitored through an electroencephalogram (EEG – a monitor that measures brain activity) while being showed a range of faces exhibiting four different emotions: happy, sad, angry, and neutral. 

Interestingly, the study shows that the P3 waves spike more when participants saw angry and sad faces. This means that cannabis users react more with seeing negative emotions than with positive emotions. It also showed that cannabis could interfere with the user's ability to implicitly identify with emotions, meaning that chronic cannabis use can lead to lower levels of empathy over time. 

More research is needed to figure out why this is the case, it could possibly be because of the endocannabinoid systems effects on our dopamine and serotonin levels. THC has been associated with negative emotion exhibitions in the amygdala in those who are considered psychologically vulnerable. Prolonged exposure can also have detrimental effects on brain development if smoking starts at a young age. It makes sense that long-term use has its pitfalls. Too much of a good thing can turn harmful.

Our EQ is dependent on our psychological history, environment, and social experiences. It evolves at different paces and different life stages for everyone. However, if you're a long-term lover of the bud, then perhaps take notice of how the plant has affected how you process emotions. 

Emotional intelligence is paramount in how we live our lives, perhaps more than we care to acknowledge. Cannabis has a lot of perks, however, the plant needs to be used appropriately and for the right reasons. You never know, your Emotional Intelligence might depend on it. 

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Taylor Ridewood
Taylor Ridewood

Taylor is a Sydney-based writer with a background in psychology and professional writing. She has a keen interest in the benefits of medicinal cannabis and enjoys researching the multi-faceted effects of cannabis on the body and mind.

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