For many of us in America, our understanding of psychedelics comes from pop culture references and misinformation from our middle school drug awareness programs. So it’s no surprise many people associate psychedelics with recreational drug use.
These experiences tend to focus on social gatherings and are used for entertainment. But what if we told you there’s a more meaningful way to use psychedelics? A way that can help you resolve enormous life problems or help you craft a more fulfilling and happy lifestyle?
The therapeutic use of psychedelic compounds isn’t new—despite their limited application in modern western medical practice. While many of us are just becoming aware of the potential benefits of psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, and other entheogenic compounds, each of these substances has a long and storied history of use in medicinal and spiritual contexts in cultures around the world.
Despite this rich history, legal access to therapeutic psychedelic use in the US is still limited. This is due to a combination of social norms, legal restrictions, and a lack of scientific and medical research. And while the first two in this list are progressing at their own pace, there has been an exponential growth in clinical studies and legal experiments focused on proving and verifying psychedelics’ therapeutic benefits.
Does this pique your interest? In this article, we’ll discuss how psychedelics interact with the mind, how that interaction translates into several therapeutic uses, and things to consider if you’re curious about using psychedelics for healing or self-improvement.
Psychedelics & The Mind
Psychedelics, also called entheogens or hallucinogens, produce powerful and even transcendental states of altered consciousness. They also have the ability to rewire our brain and positively impact things like mood, motivation, or habits.
On a deeper level, this same rewiring can help one process trauma, relieve anxiety, or even break an addiction. But how do we go from a novel hallucinogenic experience to therapeutic use?
To understand this process, we need to understand a little bit about the anatomy and physiology of the brain itself. We’ll be as brief as possible, so bear with us—we’ll get back to applying this to psychedelic therapy shortly. If you’re interested in more detail, check out our article on How Psychedelics Work in the Brain.
Despite the many different types of chemical compounds and structures that produce psychedelic effects, most of these molecules behave similarly to chemicals and neurotransmitters that already exist in the brain. Our brains are made up of long, branching cells called neurons, with root-like appendages at either end called dendrites.
These cells relay electrochemical messages to one another across tiny gaps between cell arms called synapses. To speed up the rate at which these messages travel, a white, waxy material called myelin coats some of the cells.
The abundance of myelin in some parts of the brain over others produces a whitish appearance, compared to the “gray matter” of the rest of the brain. This gray matter is the seat of much of our higher functioning, as well as much of our sensory integration and processing.
When ingested, entheogenic compounds interact with the brain’s chemical messaging system in the cerebral cortex. Most of this interaction appears to take place with receptors that would normally respond to serotonin, specifically the 5-HT2A receptor.
So far, so good, but it doesn’t explain why some compounds that have psychedelic effects and not others. To understand this, we need to go just a bit deeper.
Our concept of chemical messaging in the brain used to be that molecules worked with receptors like a key in a lock. This “perfect fit” allowed the receptor to turn from off to on, sending messages to the rest of the brain accordingly. However, it turns out that things aren’t quite so neat and tidy in our brains.
In actuality, the 5-HT2A receptor has multiple “on” positions, some of which are activated by psychedelic compounds. When activated by serotonin or other similar compounds, the receptor moves to one type of “on” position that does not produce psychedelic effects. When activated by an entheogen, however, a different activation takes place, producing an altered state of consciousness.
So now that we understand that the brain has natural receptors that produce a hallucinogenic experience when introduced to certain compounds, we can begin to discuss how these psychedelic experiences can be used in therapy. Evidence suggests that these altered states may help us process and release trauma, address negative behaviors and patterns, and relieve depression and anxiety. They may also be beneficial in hospice and palliative care settings, particularly when dealing with end-of-life issues.
The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelics
While it’s true that many questions have yet to be answered, a growing body of emerging evidence suggests many potential applications for psychedelic assisted therapy. Here, we’ll discuss the primary possible therapeutic applications for psychedelics and current evidence for each. We’ll also investigate possible therapeutic approaches using psychedelics, and the available evidence for their efficacy.
Healing from Trauma
Perhaps the most robust existing body of research concerning the benefits of psychedelics is around healing from trauma. Multiple studies conducted with PTSD and cPTSD patients have demonstrated positive outcomes for participants. These benefits appear to last for months or years following a psychedelic therapy session.
Existing research shows that psychedelic-assisted therapy using psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA all resulted in positive outcomes for participants. Patients struggling with “severe, treatment-resistant” post-traumatic stress were administered a dose of a psychedelic compound and proceeded to undergo psychedelic therapy in a controlled setting. After the session concluded, their symptoms were monitored for anywhere from 6 months to 4 years.
Over time, participants noted less anxiety, fewer flashbacks of the traumatic event, fewer panic attacks, reduced nightmares and night terrors, and improved focus and general mood. In fact, psychedelic therapy helped some patients to find relief where other approaches had failed them.
These benefits appear sustained as well, lasting weeks to months to even years after a single session. They may also be amplified or supported by regular psychedelic therapy as well as integration sessions.
For millions of Americans struggling with depression, daily activities can be a battle in a long-fought war inside our minds and bodies. Conventional therapy is typically a combination of psychotherapy sessions in combination with an antidepressant or mood-stabilizing drug. While there are dozens of different medications intended to treat depression, these may not be effective for everyone.
Additionally, antidepressant drugs can cause unwanted side effects. These may range from barely noticeable to severely impacting an individual’s quality of life, with some of the worst symptoms being constipation, insomnia, permanent muscle and nervous action changes, and increased thoughts of suicide.
Psychedelic therapy shows promise for persistent depression, especially the type referred to as “treatment-resistant depression.” This term means that conventional therapies have been previously unsuccessful in treating or managing one’s depression.
In conventional therapy models, ongoing medication is used to stabilize or decrease the severity of symptoms in order for psychotherapy to make progress, usually over a period of many years. And though this works for some, the problem is that this model focuses on symptom management first while utilizing drugs with a vast array of life-threatening side effects.
In psychedelic assisted therapy, the drugs are used temporarily to allow a user to access both conscious and subconscious parts of their psyche. In other words, psychedelics help one to identify the root causes of depression and aid the patient in resolving or reframing those first, ultimately assisting in the ongoing management of depressive symptoms.
Unlike traditional antidepressant therapy, psychedelics tend to produce more long-lasting positive effects. Recipients of therapy often report feeling better for longer after sessions. These benefits may also be reaped from a microdosing strategy as opposed to a more traditional dose.
Anxiety and panic disorders can be very difficult to treat, often requiring multiple attempts to find the right combination of therapy and medication. Psychedelic therapy may help to soothe anxiety where other therapies have failed.
This is because, unlike most conventional therapeutic approaches, there’s evidence to suggest that psychedelic therapy may help to actually rewire our stress response. Since anxiety tends to be strongly rooted in our neurology, the ability of psychedelics to help gently restructure our neural circuitry may be particularly beneficial.
Studies of both conventional psychedelic therapies and microdosing have found long-term benefits for anxiety sufferers. Participants reported feeling less tense, having fewer acute panic attacks, and being better able to redirect their thoughts when anxious feelings arose.
These benefits set in quickly following the first psychedelic therapy session, unlike most prescription medications or talk therapy approaches. The improvements in anxiety symptoms also lasted far beyond the initial therapy session, with continued therapy adding to and extending those benefits. Since anxiety and panic is often so resistant to treatment, the potential of psychedelics to help heal it is exciting.
Breaking the Cycle of Addiction
Emerging research shows psychedelic therapy to be substantially more effective at breaking the grasp of addiction than other interventions. One study using psilocybin saw a 50% rate of alcohol relapse in participants one year later, compared to 90% of participants who attended 12-step programs. Similar results have been found with tobacco use.
While it isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, psychedelic therapy may help people struggling with addiction to abstain for longer, and even for good. Considering the current opioid crisis in the US and dependency issues with other substances, psychedelic therapy may provide help where other treatments and strategies have failed.
End of Life Care
There is a growing movement of people interested in reinventing the way we approach end-of-life care. Sometimes referred to as “death positivity,” these individuals and practitioners seek to reframe our idea of death and dying. Part of this patient-centered approach to preparing for and coping with death, for some people, includes the use of psychedelics.
Existing evidence suggests that psychedelic therapy as part of hospice care can improve peace of mind and emotional comfort at the end of life. Psychedelic therapy may also confer secondary benefits to the patient’s loved ones by facilitating intimate connection and communication during end-of-life preparations.
Perhaps it’s the psychedelic induced near-death experience that reduces distress associated with the prospect of dying. Or it may be the same introspection and personal discovery associated with relieving depression and anxiety in patients. Whatever the case, we should note that psychedelic therapy isn’t a new or novel component of hospice and palliative care, it’s just new to western medicine.
Is Psychedelic Assisted Therapy For You?
While many of us have a concept of psychedelics as “party drugs,” there is abundant and mounting evidence for their therapeutic potential. In fact, the therapeutic use of psychedelics has a rich, extensive history that crosses cultures, continents, and centuries of humanity. Despite what current drug policy might suggest, psychedelics are hardly the terrifying substances the Reagan-era afterschool specials warned us of.
Psychedelic therapy techniques and practices may help to treat a variety of conditions, especially mental health concerns. Depression, anxiety, addiction, traumatic stress, and other common conditions may be helped by psychedelic therapy. Existing evidence suggests that the benefits of psychedelic therapy may set in quicker and last longer than those of more conventional therapies.
But how do you know if psychedelic assisted therapy is right for you? If you are beginning to understand that psychedelics are more than just fun experiences, you have already taken the first step in exploring an intentional psychedelic experience as a means of therapy and healing. Considering the following questions can help you further decide:
- What is the exact condition or state you’d like to achieve? Is it to manage a mental health issue, break an addiction, or address some other health concern? Getting very specific about your reason, or intent, can help clarify what treatment options are best for you.
- Have you tried to resolve your condition by previous methods that were not effective or came with a series of side effects that decreased your quality of life? Psychedelics are rarely the first line of defense when it comes to mental wellness and patients typically try other conventional methods including therapy, medication, and alternative wellness practices before seeking out psychedelics. This isn’t to say that a psychedelic experience isn’t valuable early on in the process, but asking yourself this question helps you understand where you are at in the healing journey and if it’s the right time to introduce psychedelics.
- Are you willing to put in further work and effort to achieve your intended outcome beyond the psychedelic experience? Many people think that psychedelics are like a magic bullet that miraculously heal our minds. And though these substances have a potential to heal, that potential is optimized when combined with thoughtful preparation, a framework to process the experience, and plans on how to integrate the lessons into your everyday life.
Once you have answered these questions, the next step is to do your research to determine the psychedelic therapy options best for you. Factors like budget, location, and preference between western medicine or more shamanic-focused practices will play into your choice.
The specific substance, the correct dosage, and finding a practitioner with firsthand experience are also things to consider. Also it is important to understand the legal versus illegal options and how that aligns with your personal risk tolerance.
Sound complex and overwhelming? That’s because it is. And that’s why we created Psychedelic Passage. The decision to use psychedelics for healing should not be taken lightly, and should be made using the best available information.
We suggest starting by exploring some of our other articles, such as How to Prepare for a Psychedelic Journey, and What is a Bad Trip and Why Are They Important.
For those of you wanting more personalized guidance, you may be interested in our trip sitting program where one of our trained psychedelic facilitators is available to understand your goals and help you build a personalized action plan.