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How Psychedelic Therapy Helps Treat HIV/AIDS Demoralization

Erika Perez
Erika, Head of Content at Psychedelic Passage, plucks the natural chord of human curiosity to initiate dialogue that meets readers wherever they are in their life’s journey. She reminds you that inquisition is always a reliable road to self development, and that bringing more light to your own truth helps others to awaken to theirs.

Who would’ve thought– the mighty-growing fungi that flipped the 60s on its head is now leading the 21st century rebirth of psychedelic-assisted therapy. For many, this isn’t their first time hearing that psychedelic drugs have been associated with mental and physical health benefits

For those of you that aren’t so familiar though, here’s a brief recap– Psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, have been the subject of highly funded and greatly diversified medical research studies.

They’ve attracted such an equally diverse and invested crowd because time and time again, they prove to be incredibly effective tools for helping people move through conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD– to name a few.  

Today, we’re introducing another condition whose demoralizing effects have proven to be positively altered by psilocybin-assisted therapy– human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) & acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV inhabited the lives of over 38 million living Americans in 2021, provoking a suicide rate that is 100 times higher than the general population. 

In fact, a 2005 study found that 26% of women with HIV attempted suicide after receiving their diagnosis. Of that 26% of women, 42% attempted suicide within the first month after the diagnosis, and 27% within the first week. 

The permanence of an HIV and AIDS diagnosis can be forcibly unending. The journey to acceptance can be long and disheartening. After shock comes denial. After denial can come anger, bargaining (for a way out), depression, and at some point, comes acceptance.

Psychedelics have proven to be useful tools for navigating a grief process and an identity crisis. That’s why today, we’re diving into the benefits that psychedelic therapy can have on people with HIV and AIDS demoralization, those who are grieving an identity they feel they’ve lost as a result of their diagnosis.

We’ll explore emotion-based and trait-level themes common in people with these conditions. Then, we’ll analyze how psychedelic-assisted research outcomes can be used to understand why psychedelics can help regulate and center the demoralized mind, body, and spirit.

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) are medical conditions that have plagued humanity for over 40 years. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and can lead to AIDS, a condition in which the immune system is severely compromised. 

As the virus attacks the immune system, it becomes harder for the body to fight off infections and illnesses. This can lead to an increased risk of developing opportunistic infections. 

One of the most common co-occurring conditions with HIV and AIDS is tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs. Others include fungal infections, pneumonia, and certain types of cancer.

HIV is primarily spread through sexual contact, sharing of needles, and mother-to-child transmission during childbirth or breastfeeding. Symptoms of HIV can also vary greatly depending on the stage of the infection. 

The physical symptoms of HIV can be quite mild, and some people may not even experience any symptoms for years after contracting the virus. However, as the virus progresses, it can cause more severe symptoms such as weight loss, persistent diarrhea, skin rashes and fatigue.

Diagnosing HIV involves a blood test that detects the presence of antibodies to the virus. This test is usually done as part of routine healthcare or as part of an HIV screening program. HIV can be prevented through safe sex practices and by not sharing needles. 

These conditions don’t just affect the body though, they also have a profound impact on mental health. Studies have shown that people living with HIV are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other cognitive disorders. The stigma associated with HIV often leads to discrimination, exclusion, and negative attitudes from others. 

Feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation caused by these social conditions can further exacerbate mental health problems. This is precisely why it’s crucial that HIV/AIDS treatment involves a mind-body approach, addressing all factors that play into the disharmony within our systems.

The Current Treatments For HIV & AIDS

While there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, advances in medical technology and research have led to the development of antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART uses a combination of medications to help manage symptoms by suppressing the virus and preventing it from replicating in the body. 

The goal of ART is to reduce the viral load in the body, which can help to prevent the development of AIDS-related illnesses and improve overall health. ART is typically recommended for all people living with HIV, regardless of the stage of the disease or CD4 cell count. The effectiveness of ART in reducing the viral load and preventing the progression of HIV to AIDS has been well established. 

However, ART only treats the physiological symptoms of HIV and AIDS, not the mental or emotional side effects. As we mentioned earlier, co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders (SUDs) are common in people living with HIV and AIDS. 

The treatment of these disorders typically involves a combination of medications and therapy. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers, are often used in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

For many, medications like naltrexone and methadone have been effective for treating substance use disorders, but there’s also a large population of people who see little to no meaningful aid from these treatments and who feel that the side effects of antidepressants outweigh the benefits.

Next, we’ll take a deeper dive into the psychological dimension of HIV and AIDS. How does the emotional/psychological experience of HIV/AIDS correlate to the physical experience? 

The Psychological & Neurological Effects of HIV and AIDS

Mental health and mental disorders are very well understood- scientifically, but as the cliches of life go– truth can often be well conceptualized, but poorly integrated and applied. A person with HIV/ AIDS can logically understand where their depressive and anxious traits stem from (if the disorders are diagnosis-related). 

Like many other humans, they can know exactly why they’re anxious, depressed, and/or addicted. Whether it’s due to unstable living conditions, poor boundary-setting skills, or the death of a loved one, people often reach a point in therapy where they can objectively understand their emotions and triggers, have processed the truth, and are now ready to harness the light.

It’s here though, that many people can get stuck– knowing the change they want to see but having a difficult time putting new habits, patterns, and mental narratives in motion. This is because the psychological factors that play into HIV/AIDS demoralization are multifaceted. 

As we shared earlier, the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is often a big culprit of strong shame, guilt, and social isolation. People living with HIV and AIDS may experience discrimination, rejection, and even violence from those around them, which can lead to psychological trauma and all of the mental health issues we’ve previously discussed.

However, HIV is also known to directly affect the brain and nervous system, meaning that demoralization isn’t always a function of shame or social power.

HIV can enter the brain and infect cells called microglia and astrocytes, which play a critical role in maintaining the health and function of the nervous system. As the virus replicates and spreads, it can lead to inflammation and damage to brain tissue, which can result in a range of neurological changes.

One of the most common neurological changes associated with HIV and AIDS is cognitive impairment. This can range from mild cognitive difficulties, such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, to more severe impairments, such as dementia

HIV and AIDS can also lead to peripheral neuropathy. This condition can result from damage to the nerves that transmit information between the brain and the rest of the body. HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) is a term used to describe the range of cognitive symptoms that can occur in individuals with HIV and AIDS. 

On their own, the associated psychological factors only perpetuate these neurological changes. Chronic stress and anxiety, for example, can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function. 

Studies have shown that individuals living with these conditions may experience a decrease in brain volume, particularly in the frontal and temporal lobes, which can impact cognitive function, including memory, attention, and decision-making.

The psychological experience can also directly impact physical health. Stress and anxiety can cause changes in the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections and diseases. 

Depression can also cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, and sleep disturbances, which can worsen the overall physical experience of HIV and AIDS. Thus, when creating a treatment plan, it’s important to remember that the emotional and psychological experience of HIV and AIDS is closely intertwined with the physical experience. 

Improvements in one area can lead to improvements in the other. Effective treatment for HIV and AIDS can improve physical health and decrease symptoms, which can lead to improvements in mood and psychological well being. 

Similarly, psychotherapy and other psychological interventions can help individuals living with HIV and AIDS to cope with the emotional and psychological impact of their condition, which can lead to improvements in physical health.

Coming up, we’re asking if and how psychedelic therapy can effectively treat HIV/AIDS-induced mental disorder. Does this Western reintroduction to psychedelic medicine represent the development and expansion of a new class of mental health drugs?

How Psychedelics Can Help Treat HIV/AIDS Demoralization

Psychedelics on The Mind

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in the use of psychedelics for treating a variety of mental health conditions. These compounds, such as psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, have been shown to have profound effects on the mind, inducing altered states of consciousness that often lead to transformative experiences. 

But what about their effects on individuals with HIV/AIDS demoralization? Can serotonergic psychedelics benefit the psychological health of those living with this condition?

First, let’s get clear on what we mean by HIV/AIDS demoralization. This term refers to a set of psychological symptoms and conditions that can develop in individuals living with HIV/AIDS. These can include depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and low self-esteem, among others. 

Studies have found that these compounds can increase feelings of empathy, interconnectedness, and meaning in life. This is likely due to the fact that serotonergic psychedelics act on the serotonin system in the brain, which is involved in regulating mood, emotion, and cognition.

One study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology looked at the effects of psilocybin on individuals with life-threatening cancer, a population that shares some similarities with individuals living with HIV/AIDS. 

The study found that a single dose of psilocybin led to significant reductions in anxiety and depression, as well as increased feelings of well-being and spiritual connection. These effects were still present six months after the initial dose for 60-80% of participants.

Another study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease looked at the effects of LSD on individuals with anxiety related to end-of-life issues. The study found that a single dose of LSD led to significant reductions in anxiety, as well as increased feelings of well-being and spiritual experiences. These effects were also still present 12 months after the initial dose.

Perhaps even more compelling, a pilot study conducted by Brian T. Anderson and colleagues in 2020, investigated the treatment potential of psilocybin-assisted group therapy for demoralized, older, long-term AIDS survivor men.

The study recruited 18 participants who received 8-10 group therapy visits, and one (22-32mg) psilocybin administration session, in a controlled setting, while being supported by a team of trained facilitators. The results of the study showed that psilocybin-assisted group therapy caused a clinically significant change in demoralization from baseline to 3-month follow-up.

Participants reported significant improvements in symptoms of demoralization, as well as improvements in mood, anxiety, and quality of life. These improvements were sustained at follow-up assessments three months after the therapy sessions.

These studies provide evidence that serotonergic psychedelics can have significant and long-lasting effects on psychological factors that are associated with HIV/AIDS demoralization. 

By increasing feelings of well-being, empathy, and interconnectedness, and decreasing anxiety, depression, and demoralization, these compounds may help individuals with HIV/AIDS to better cope with the challenges of their condition and improve their overall quality of life.

Psychedelics in The Brain

Studies have shown that psychedelics can have a profound impact on the brain, leading to changes in neurotransmitter balance and function, Default Mode Network (DMN) function, brain lobe activation, and electrical activity.

A systematic review by James J Gattuso et al., published in 2022, examined the effects of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, on brain function. They reviewed studies that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in healthy and unhealthy participants who’d been given psilocybin. 

They found that psilocybin decreased activity in the Default Mode Network, a network of brain regions that are active when the brain is at rest and not engaged in any specific task, while increasing global network connectivity. 

The DMN is thought to be involved in self-referential thinking and mind-wandering, and is often overactive in individuals with depression and anxiety. Global network connectivity refers to the degree to which different regions of the brain are connected and able to communicate with each other. 

Another study, published in 2016, investigated the effects of ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew used in traditional Amazonian medicine, on brain activity. The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure changes in brain electrical activity in participants who had been given ayahuasca

They found that ayahuasca increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in regulating emotion and decision-making. The researchers suggested that these changes in brain activity may explain the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca. Research has also shown that psychedelics can affect neurotransmitter balance and function in the brain. 

For example, studies have found that psilocybin and LSD, another psychedelic compound, increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep, and plays a role in the antidepressant effects of some medications.

In addition to these neurochemical effects, psychedelics have been shown to increase brain lobe activation in areas involved in emotional processing and sensory perception. The emotional and sensory processing areas of the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes, are crucial for the regulation and interpretation of emotions and sensory input. 

So, how can these neurological changes benefit individuals living with HIV/AIDS demoralization? By increasing brain lobe activation in these areas, psychedelics may help individuals process their emotions in a more effective and constructive manner, leading to greater emotional stability and resilience.

Moreover, the resulting enhanced sensory perception, can allow individuals to experience their surroundings from a more profound and meaningful perspective. This can help to counteract the feelings of disconnection and disorientation that often accompany demoralization. In addition, the increase in serotonin levels can help to improve mood and reduce feelings of hopelessness and despair.

By decreasing activity in the DMN and increasing activity in the anterior and cingulate cortex and in the global connectivity network, psychedelics may help individuals break free from negative patterns and reduce self-referential thinking and rumination, leading to greater psychological flexibility and openness.

Psychedelics For The Soul

In a 2019 study by Rosalind Watts and colleagues, researchers found that the use of psychedelics can produce significant changes in existential perspectives, leading to a re-evaluation of one’s place in the world and a greater sense of connectedness, purpose, and acceptance.

For individuals with HIV/AIDS and demoralization, these changes in existential perspectives may be particularly helpful to promote a greater sense of acceptance and reduce existential distress. In other studies, psychedelics have also been shown to promote a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life. 

This can include a greater sense of social responsibility and a desire to make a positive impact in the world, as well as a greater sense of connection to a higher power or spiritual realm. In a 2018 study by Raphaël Millière and colleagues, researchers explored the potential of psychedelic use in enhancing mindfulness and promoting self-consciousness. 

Mindfulness involves a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, a reduction of self-referential thinking, and has been shown to have a range of benefits for psychological and physical health.

It suggests that psychedelics can induce a state of heightened awareness and deeper introspection, leading to a greater understanding of one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This, in turn, can aid in the cultivation of mindfulness, which involves being fully present and engaged in the present moment.

Furthermore, the study suggests that the use of psychedelics and mindfulness practices may have similar effects on the brain, particularly on the default mode network. Both practices have been shown to reduce activity in this network, which we know is typically overactive in people with HIV who have depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.

Additionally, research has shown that the practice of mindfulness can promote the plasticity of gray matter in the brain, indicating that it can bring about structural changes in the ventral posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). 

This region is a vital hub that is linked to crucial aspects of human existence, such as self-awareness, emotions, cognition, and aging. Consequently, these changes may have far-reaching benefits for those with HIV, especially considering that gray matter volume is reduced in this population. 

Discussion

Our findings suggest that psychedelics have the potential to be a highly therapeutic tool for people living with HIV/AIDS. Specifically in this population, we’ve found that psilocybin can help effectively and sustainably alleviate demoralization.

For people with HIV/AIDS, psychedelic therapy can be an invaluable experience. One that increases mindfulness, purpose, openness, acceptance, social, spiritual, and intrapersonal connection, brain connectivity, serotonin production, and anterior cortex activity.

It also decreases default mode network activation, anxiety, rumination, existential distress and depression– all factors that greatly contribute to the emotional stability or instability of someone with HIV and AIDS.

Though results of these studies are promising and provide support for the potential use of psychedelics in treating mental health symptoms in people living with HIV/AIDS, further research is needed to fully understand the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in this population. 

In particular, more studies are needed to determine the optimal dosing and frequency of treatment. It’s also important to consider that psychedelics are not without risks and medical contraindications. 

People with a history of certain mental health conditions, such as psychosis or bipolar disorder, may be at increased risk of adverse effects from psychedelic use. Additionally, certain medications, such as SSRIs, can interact with psychedelics. Thus, you should always consult a doctor before making any changes to your medications.

Explore How it Feels to be Connected

The information presented in today’s article offers high promise for the HIV/AIDS treatment potential of psychedelic therapy. As we’ve mentioned throughout the piece, the participants in these studies received specialized, professional guidance throughout their healing process.

These professionals carefully screened and monitored those who underwent the therapy, to ensure safety and well-being. Thus, if you or someone you know is considering embarking on a therapeutic psychedelic journey, we empower you to book a consultation with our psychedelic concierges.

They’ll help you get connected to our pre-vetted network of experienced psychedelic facilitators. From there, you’ll be guided through preparation and integration sessions, while receiving in-person support throughout your actual psychedelic journey.

If you’re not quite ready for this step though, we encourage you to visit our resources page where you’ll find a large and diverse collection of articles on all-things-psychedelic. Well, that’s all we have for today, fellow psychonauts. As always, safe and mindful journeying!

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At Psychedelic Passage, we offer professional 1-on-1 guidance and companionship on your journey of healing. We simply can't sit back and let Americans continue to sit in silent suffering trying to battle mental health issues within a broken health care system, all while knowing that effective alternatives exist. We stand for the sacred, at-home, ceremonial use of psychedelics for consciousness exploration, which we believe to be a fundamental human right.

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