Throughout the pandemic, cannabis has been the most popular and most frequently used drug, according to research by Drugs and Me. In fact, in a survey from April of last year, 49 percent of participants reported daily usage, and 88 percent consumed it once a week or more often.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, cannabis was the drug most participants felt dependent on (31 percent) and wanted to stop taking (27 percent). But for those who rely on cannabis as a sleep aid, this can prove near impossible: research from 2008 found that up to 65 percent of former cannabis users identified poor sleep as a reason for relapsing.
Michael*, a sales manager living in South Africa, has felt dependant on cannabis to get to sleep for the last decade. “When I take a break from smoking, I literally can’t sleep,” he says. “I will lie up until two or three o’clock in the morning – it’s almost like my mind won’t stop racing.”
This is a genuine psychological and physiological reality, says Deirdre Conroy, Clinical Director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the University of Michigan, and is mostly caused by the withdrawal symptoms from quitting cannabis.
So: if you’re looking to ditch the spliffs without forfeiting a good night’s sleep, what can you do?
Get to the Root of the Problem
According to Conroy, if it’s actually a mental health issue preventing you from being able to fall asleep, you should address that straight away. “If, for example, you were addressing your anxiety through other methods, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or medication, those things could help you sleep,” she says.
Obviously, professional help isn’t always accessible. That’s why it’s important to be mindful and set boundaries throughout the day, especially if you’re working from home. “Try not to work from your bedroom and, if you have to, try to face away from the bed. You should also have a concrete cut-off point for your working day.”
It also helps to write down all of your worries a few hours before bed, to avoid bringing them with you, says Conroy.
Forget About Instant Gratification
Importantly, says Conroy, “it’s normal if you have to stare at the ceiling for a little bit before you sleep”. We often expect to fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow, and if we can’t, we crave a quick remedy.
Our brains can’t switch off on demand, so it’s important to commit to a nightly “wind-down period”. Here, says sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, we should limit distractions and avoid anything too stimulating. Practically, Conroy suggests putting down your phone a little while before bed, “and definitely keep it on silent”.
You should also leave enough time to actually wind down. As Stanley says, “Are you willing to miss an hour of Netflix, in order to get a better night's sleep?” (You should be.)
Prepare for Bad Dreams
Many people report suffering from extremely vivid and scary dreams when they stop smoking cannabis. This happens because cannabis can account for REM sleep suppression, says Conroy. “So, when you stop smoking, you will experience a rebound of REM sleep and may have more bizarre dreams.”
London-based journalist Sarah* has smoked almost every day for the last couple of years, since finding that cannabis helped quell her anxiety and ADHD. The main obstacle to quitting for Sarah is, without weed, she is “plagued by traumatic nightmares nearly every night”.
To remedy this, Conroy suggests limiting your exposure to anything you find stressful before bed, be it horror movies or the daily news cycle.
Find What Works for You
“Somebody once said: one man’s torture is another’s pleasure,” says Stanley. “There’s no point in drinking chamomile tea if you don’t like chamomile tea.”
Nobody is the same, and both Conroy and Stanley believe that the best method of getting to sleep will be the one you enjoy. “So whether it’s reading a book, mindfulness, yoga, chamomile tea, listening to Pink Floyd really loudly, I don't care,” says Stanley, “as long as you stick to it.”