Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Guide to Overcoming the Paranoia Symptom of Cannabis for Nerds

There is probably no drug as well-suited to exploring cognition as marijuana. In addition to being one of the least toxic of all psychoactive substances, cannabis has the nerd-friendly property of offering a backstage view of human mental processes.

Unfortunately, many people find themselves unable to experience the cognitive adventures that marijuana offers, because when they get high they quickly slide toward intense negative emotions, commonly referred to as the "paranoia" side effect of marijuana. I have experienced this symptom myself - it sucks! It was so unpleasant that it caused me to quit using marijuana for years, until I learned, with no small difficulty, to have pleasant experiences while high on marijuana that enriched even the sober parts of my life. I offer this guide to overcoming and troubleshooting paranoia and painful emotions as a side effect of marijuana.

1. It's Okay To Be Kind Of Retarded

Marijuana causes intense temporary changes in cognition. Memory and the experience of time are altered, so that the more stoned you are, the smaller the window of time that you can remember. An extremely baked person may be living in a time window of only a few seconds. Since it can take twenty or more seconds to formulate and speak a sentence, and thirty seconds more to hear the reply, a (novice) stoned person living in a five-second window will not be able to communicate coherently. Sentences trail off, responses are bizarre, and generally a stoned person might seem really stupid. (This can be experienced when alone, but it's especially vivid in conversation.)

For most of us nerds, a lot of our self-image is wrapped up in being intelligent. To be rendered suddenly stupid can be terrifying. The most important step toward the valuable cognitive experiences of marijuana is to learn to accept yourself for being totally retarded. (In fact, this experience is valuable in itself.)

Of course, you're not really stupid - you've chosen to have an experience in which some of your ordinary capacities are lost. But what if you really were stupid? So what? Actually it's kind of awesome.

Think about a person who is literally developmentally delayed or a person with severe dementia - ideally a person you have met. Would you make fun of this person? Do they have something to be ashamed of? Or are you inclined to be kind to the person and to recognize your common humanity? Try being that kind to yourself. People are worthy of kindness no matter what their intellectual capacities, and you have nothing to be ashamed of when you are temporarily without your capacity to produce coherent sentences. Instead of accepting feelings of shame and embarrassment, you might learn to be more compassionate toward people who have permanently lost (or never developed) the ability to communicate in coherent sentences.

Losing the ability to communicate is a form of social death. If you can't form sentences, you are cut off from human contact; it's not surprising that it's frightening. Those who have undergone waterboarding find it terrifying even though they consciously realize they are in no danger of drowning. Perhaps losing the ability to communicate triggers a similar deep fear. If you can overcome the fear, though, the novice, uncommunicative stage of marijuana use can provide insight into a condition we otherwise would not be able to access.

To realize that you are still a worthy human being even if you're stupid is a very safe feeling - especially if your self-worth has heavily relied on your intelligence. Being stupid for a while is kind of freeing. Be aware, however, that this feeling of being stupid when high fades with time as you become more skilled in riding this cognitive state.

2. Establish Communication With Your Sober Self

This is the most important part.

To make the stoned state more of a genuine part of your life and less uncanny, the stoned state must be linked up with the sober state. Just as different modules of the brain must communicate with each other, you can benefit when different states of consciousness can communicate with each other.

The cognitive changes marijuana causes can be fun or scary, depending on how you learn to experience them. You might think of something while high and be unable to guess whether it is obvious, normal, incorrect, or totally crazy. A great way to resolve this is to write your thoughts down, to the best of your ability, as questions for your sober self.

Before getting high, you might set aside a piece of paper and a pen (or perhaps an open word processor document, but I like pen and paper) and address it, "Dear sober self," at the top. Then, when you're high, fill it in with questions, observations, and anything else you'd like to communicate to your sober self. Don't worry if it sounds stupid or crazy - that's funny and totally fine, not something to be ashamed of, remember?

This process is heroically difficult at the beginning, but gets exponentially easier with time. The first communication is the hardest.

The most important advice is to take your time. You might get two words written down and then forget what you were thinking about. That's fine! Chill out and wait, calmly retrace your thought process, and see if it comes back to you. It might - or something else neat might come to mind for you to try to write down. You might get three words down this time - etc.

This exercise is especially fun to do in a pair or group, in which case a joint document labeled "Dear sober selves," is recommended.

The holy grail is achieved when you manage to remember a stoned insight when you're sober. Three techniques are useful: focus on the insight, repeat and rehearse it in your mind, and anchor the insight to something you'll think about when sober. (For some reason, the image of an anchor often works for me.) Practice mentally tracing the path from your anchoring image to the insight many times.

3. Mindfulness Perspective

Instead of getting caught up in the sensations and emotions you're experiencing, adopt a perspective of curious mindfulness about how you feel and think. Practicing mindfulness meditation while sober is great preparation.

For instance, marijuana often causes rapid heartbeat. Without a mindfulness perspective, you might assume that your heart is beating fast because you are scared or anxious, and as a result begin to feel scared or anxious. From a mindfulness perspective, you can simply notice that your heart is beating fast. No action or fear is necessary.

If you start to have a painful experience, notice that this is so. You may either investigate this feeling from a perspective of curiosity, or choose to focus on something else instead. However, most of the experiences you have will probably be ambiguous rather than painful, and mindful awareness can prevent them from becoming painful and instead make them merely interesting.

4. Eating Is For Pros

Smoking or vaping is the best method for novices to use marijuana, as they can easily control the dosage. Eating marijuana or drinking alcohol extract makes it much harder to figure out the proper dose, increasing the risk that you will accidentally get so high that, as my friend puts it, you forget which way is front.

If you accidentally take too much, remember that marijuana is an incredibly safe drug and you're not in any real danger. Laugh at yourself and take a nap.

5. Protect Yourself Ahead Of Time And Trust Your Sober Self

When you're high and experiencing those negative emotions, what is it you most dread? Before you get high, take reasonable precautions against these fears becoming real, then remind yourself of this when you are high. For instance, if your fears are social, then before you get high, you might make sure the only people you'll have to talk to are other high people that you like.

When you're high, do reality checks and trust your sober self - remember that when you were sober, with all your cognitive resources present, you thought about and took care of everything, so that stoned you can just relax.

6. Prepare To Interrogate Your Fears

Prepare a short list of questions used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to do "reality checks" against painful emotions in real life. Have this list close by so you can go through the questions if you experience fear or other negative emotions while high. The wik on cognitive distortions may help. Here is a sample list:

  • Is this thought or fear realistic?
  • What is the evidence for and against?
  • Have I had this thought before? How long have I been having this thought?
  • In my life, what are the sources of the messages in this thought?
  • Is this all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking? Is there room for grey?
  • If what I fear came to pass, then what would happen?
  • Am I focusing only on the negative? Are there positive aspects I'm ignoring?
  • What are the costs and benefits of this thought?
  • Can I reach for a different thought that feels better?

7. Stoner Music

Listen to music made by and for proudly high people, like MF DOOM or Cody ChestnuTT. This will remind you that being high is something that lots of people do and enjoy; social proof is powerful. This music is also optimized for the stoned state. Alternatively, listen to symphonies and other music with enough complexity and structure to reward being the sole focus of a stoned mind.

Some people find that when giving or receiving massages while high and listening to music, they have beautiful synesthetic visions building from the combination of touch and music.

8. Have Orgasms

It's rad, and it's hard to be scared while coming.

9. Sensory Deprivation

To highlight the cognitive part of the marijuana experience, remove most sensory stimulation. You might take a warm bath by dim light, or lie in bed or on a yoga mat in the dark in a familiar room. Then just watch your mind turn its pages. What's going on in your head? Where do your thoughts originate? What connects to what? Can you hear different modules of your brain communicating with each other? How do they communicate - in words, in jolts of feeling as if in chemicals, or in some other way? Who is in charge? What do the factions look like? Are any patterns of thought familiar? Think about the questions and projects you're most interested in and see what your mind does.

Running, with its motion and repetitive rhythm, is another route to something like hypnotic sensory deprivation to highlight cognition, and it feels amazingly good.

That said, you should of course also eat peanut butter pie ice cream and play Super Smash Bros. You never know what will trigger a glorious insight cascade.

10. Grow A Pair

If all else fails, you could try not being such a pussy. Some people intentionally seek out scary, disturbing music and images when on drugs in order to test themselves against their fears. Like a roller coaster or a haunted house, scary experiences can be thrilling. Just deciding to be brave despite fear can give you the perspective to have a growth experience on drugs.

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