Research published online May 14 in Social Psychological and Personality Science has uncovered that marijuana buffers people from experiencing social pain.
“Prior work has shown that the analgesic acetaminophen, which acts indirectly through CB1 receptors, reduces the pain of social exclusion. The current research provides the first evidence that marijuana also dampens the negative emotional consequences of social exclusion on negative emotional outcomes,” Timothy Deckman of the University of Kentucky and his colleagues wrote in the study.
The four-part study, which included a total of 7040 participants and three methodologies, was based on previous research that found an overlap between physical and social pain. Acetaminophen, which is used in over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, has been found to reduce physical and social pain.
Aceteminophen and marijuana both affect cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain and both drugs are used to treat physical pain.
For their first two studies, the researchers examined cross-sectional data from major national surveys. The first study used data from the National Comorbidity Study and found marijuana users who reported being lonely had higher levels of self-worth and mental health than non-marijuana users who reported being lonely.
The second study used data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. This second analysis found those used marijuana relatively frequently and experienced social pain were less likely to experience a major depressive episode during the past 12 months.
The third study employed a longitudinal design. The researchers surveyed high school students regarding loneliness, lifetime marijuana use, and depression. The same students were surveyed again two years later. The study found that marijuana use predicted lower levels of depression among students who were lonely. For students who were not lonely, however, marijuana had little impact on depression.
The fourth and final study employed an experimental design with a control group. For this study, the participants played a computer-based game called Cyberball. The preprogrammed 3-player game is designed to evoke social exclusion and rejection by consistently ignoring the participant. Deckman and his colleagues found marijuana users had a smaller decrease in self-esteem and belonging following the game.
“Marijuana has been used to treat physical pain, and the current findings suggest that it may also reduce emotional pain,” the researchers concluded. “This may reflect a poor way of coping with social pain, but it may also explain some of the widespread appeal of marijuana.”