Anxiety is a daily struggle for millions of people—about 40 million in the US alone, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Despite its common occurrence, however, those who struggle with anxiety often feel overwhelmed by their thoughts. There’s a common misconception that anxiety is “all in your head,” and it leads many patients to mask their symptoms—often to their own detriment.
A Background on Anxiety
The solution to anxiety in much of Western medicine tends to involve sedative medications, antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), and other pharmaceutical treatments. While we aren’t here to pill shame (you and you alone have the right to decide what is best for you and your body), we also recognize that these interventions aren’t for everyone. Not only that, but they aren’t especially effective for many people and often come with some pretty intense side effects.
Recent research indicates that psychedelic therapy may help people suffering from anxiety. While the research is relatively new, the case for psychedelics and healing goes back thousands of years in human history. At this point, you’re probably wondering how psychedelics can help anxiety specifically? Here, we’ll discuss the potential therapeutic applications of psychedelics for anxiety and how they might work. We’ll also take a moment to talk about dosage, what intentional use looks like, and how to pursue the psychedelic experience safely.
What Effect do Psychedelics Have on Anxiety?
There’s a prevalent misconception, especially among people new to the concept of entheogens, that psychedelic experiences make one paranoid or agitated. If this is the case, then one would assume that psychedelics would make anxiety worse for most people. However, the opposite appears to be true, both in traditional psychedelic medicine and in modern therapeutic practice.
Indigenous people in Mexico and Central America, for example, carry on the traditions of psychedelic healing today. Practitioners (and recipients) of this type of healing apply it to various types of conditions, both mental and physical. In the context of this practice, which uses psilocybin mushrooms, the fungus is consumed to connect to a divine source.
While the name of this source varies according to tradition, the principle is the same: a higher connection to energy, spirit, and healing. By healing our minds, practitioners teach us, we can heal our bodies as well. As anyone with anxiety can attest, the mental symptoms of panic often have a very physical manifestation. Intentional psychedelic use helps address symptoms at both levels simultaneously.
This may be due, in part, to the holistic approach of intentional psychedelic use with a practitioner. Some evidence suggests that psychedelic therapy is more likely than conventional therapy techniques to be accompanied by lasting positive lifestyle changes. It is probable that these lifestyle changes support healing in a way that amplifies the measured effectiveness of psychedelic therapy.
Regardless of the mechanism, available evidence suggests that psychedelic therapy may benefit people suffering from anxiety and panic disorders. In fact, scientific studies have shown that a single dose of psychedelics can increase openness, bring out positive personality traits, and therapeutic antidepressant effects.
Recently, the FDA granted the “breakthrough therapy” designation to both MDMA and psilocybin for PTSD and depression, respectively. This designation means that the FDA is expediting the development and review of these psychedelic drugs because they have the potential to treat PTSD and depression better than the therapeutic options currently available. Soon, the FDA may grant the same designation for LSD, which is in various pre-clinical trial stages for it’s potential treatment of anxiety.
Preliminary data suggests that, unlike traditional Western therapies, recipients of psychedelic therapy have better long-term health outcomes. Participants of one study reported feeling better over longer periods compared to those given treatment with benzodiazepines or placebos.
What Is Intentional Psychedelic Use?
Intentional psychedelic use refers to a deliberate experience where psychedelic substances are consumed in a safe and supportive environment with an intended outcome of personal and collective wellness. This could be in a ceremonial circle, with a trip sitter, or in a therapeutic setting—but is fundamentally different than recreational use, which is purely for entertainment.
The importance of intentional use cannot be overstated. Not only is the participant intentionally preparing for the experience ahead of time (hopefully with the aid of a practitioner), but they are then welcomed into the psychedelic experience by a professional practitioner who is there to hold space, be supportive, and ensure participant safety.
For those of you looking to be professionally supported during your psychedelic experience, we offer trip sitting services with our experienced facilitators. These sessions can range from being more ceremonial in nature or purely trip sitting. Regardless, our main objective is to provide you a high level of care while implementing the latest proven harm reduction techniques. To see if our psychedelic guiding services are a good fit, you can schedule a consultation here.
How Intentional Psychedelic Use Works for Anxiety
While researchers are still working to understand the specific mechanisms by which psilocybin and other entheogens help ease anxiety, we do have some insight into their function outside the empirical data available. For this insight, we must look to cultural, anthropological, and anecdotal data and accounts.
True, such accounts are not perfectly quantifiable in the way that empirical science likes things to be. However, empirical science is no more capable of fully explaining the world than any other singular perspective. This is especially true of entheogens, whose tangible influence on intangible factors (such as happiness, fulfillment, and openness), has confounded researchers for decades.
It’s these intangible factors, however, that are so vital to our mental and spiritual health—and our physical health as well. While our largely Westernized views on health and wellness tend to minimize (or outright ignore) the connection between the physical and the ethereal, a growing community of people are recognizing the necessity of the mind-body connection for overall wellness.
If our personal experience is any indication, intentional psychedelic use fundamentally changes how we view ourselves as humans and how we relate to the world around us. This fresh perspective allows us to connect the dots—realizing that our most traumatic events in life were essential parts of our evolutionary process.
This realization creates an environment where inner peace can be authentically cultivated. Perhaps even more important, the psychedelic experience allows us to shift our internal narrative from one of self-hate to that of self-love.
The Neurobiology of Anxiety
To understand the effect of intentional psychedelic use on anxiety, we must first understand a bit more about the nature of anxiety itself. As anyone who has experienced a panic or anxiety attack can attest, the sensation of sudden terror feels like you might actually be dying. Anxiety isn’t just a disconcerting thought, either. It’s an unstoppable and seemingly inescapable barrage of concerns and problems and potential terrors that overwhelm the conscious mind.
These racing thoughts signal the sympathetic nervous system to kick into gear, activating the body’s fear response. While this may feel slightly different from person to person, a panicked feeling when one shouldn’t be panicking is always disconcerting. Physical sensations might include difficulty breathing, pain in the stomach or chest, muscle cramps or spasms, shivering, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, loss of vision, and even fainting.
This fear response is an evolutionary trait designed to avoid dangerous situations and to activate the sympathetic nervous system responsible for our “fight or flight” mechanism in order to survive. Anxiety hijacks this system and causes it to malfunction, tripping the threat alarm where one doesn’t exist—or, at least, not to that level. There’s some evidence to suggest that psilocybin, ayahuasca and other psychedelic therapies can help to rewire the neural pathways in the brain responsible for this phenomenon.
One study, published in the journal Cell Report, found that psychedelics enhance neuroplasticity at the cellular level. Imaging of neurons after psychedelic therapy showed increased number and activity of synapses, or “connections”, between neurons. In a way, calling these parts of the brain “connections” is a bit of a misnomer, and we need to understand them in a bit more detail to appreciate the potential implications of these findings.
For our purposes here, “synapse” is shorthand for “synaptic cleft,” the space between the tendrils (neurites) of one cell and another. Neurites almost touch one another, but not quite. It is within this literal and metaphorical gap that most of our brain activity happens.
These almost-connections are made up of long, branching extensions of the cell, which reach toward the branches of the next, and so on. Messages are transferred from one cell to another by the release of neurotransmitters, or chemical signals within the brain.
Since psychedelic therapy has been observed to increase the number and activity of synapses in the brain, it’s not unreasonable to say that entheogens alter the mind in the most literal of ways.
Existing research shows that, overwhelmingly, this change tends to be for the better. Participants in psychedelic therapy tend to report an enduring improvement in their feelings and symptoms after just one session. This is also true of depression, leading us to believe that psychedelic therapy holds considerable potential for healing.
Dosage: Microdosing vs. Macrodosing
There are two different ways to use psychedelics to treat anxiety: macrodosing or microdosing—we suggest using a combination of both. Macrodosing has received the most attention in the past several decades, and refers to a full dose of psychedelics that induces a profound state of altered consciousness (typically called “tripping”).
As interest in psychedelic therapy has reemerged, some proponents and practitioners have begun to experiment with a technique called microdosing. While this technique also shows promising results, particularly for anxiety, it works a bit differently compared to traditional psychedelic therapies where a full macrodose is consumed.
These differences may make it more ideal for some people, and the evidence for its therapeutic potential is mounting. Microdosing works by using tiny doses of psychedelic compounds—not enough to produce impairment, but sufficient to induce a sense of wellbeing.
For perspective on what constitutes a “microdose,” the practice of microdosing uses anywhere from one-tenth to one-twentieth of a standard recreational dose (i.e. macrodose). In the case of mushrooms, for instance, a macrodose is usually somewhere between 1 and 5 grams, while a microdose is generally around 0.1 gram. Obviously, specific dosages will vary by substance. You can find our full how-to guide on microdosing here.
When taken at these tiny doses, entheogens appear to reduce anxiety, improve our ability to socialize, and boost our mood. Many people who microdose do so to improve creativity, support their ability to focus, and feel more grounded and “present” in daily life. This grounding effect may be especially helpful for people struggling with anxiety, particularly in combination with other therapies like mindfulness and meditation.
Microdosing seems to be especially helpful for anxiety compared to standard psychedelic therapeutic techniques. Because of its lower intensity, microdosing may be particularly good for people nervous about a full “trip.” It can also be a helpful strategy for those seeking an introduction to the power of psychedelic healing, but aren’t sure where to begin. Microdosing is analogous to taking a vitamin in the morning—it’s essentially an anti-anxiety supplement with sub-perceptual effects.
There is some evidence that microdosing may be especially beneficial to people suffering from anxiety and panic disorders. While systematic analysis is ongoing, current results suggest that microdosing is especially well-tolerated among psychedelic therapy techniques. This is true for anxiety as well as other conditions like depression and PTSD.
However, there are certain aspects where microdosing falls short. The primary difference being the lack of a true psychedelic experience. Meaning a macrodose is required for most people to experience a state of truly altered consciousness—which is what provides direct access to the subconscious brain and can result in paranormal experiences, extreme bliss, ego death, and even a sense of oneness with everything.
As you can see, there are pros and cons to each approach. What has worked the best for us and for our clients is combining the two approaches—consuming a macrodose that serves as a full reset, and then following that up with a microdosing protocol that allows the positive changes to be sustained long term.
A Quick Note on Mental Health
Unfortunately, the War on Drugs in America has created a lot of misinformation when it comes to psychedelics, particularly with regards to the “bad trip”. You may have heard rumors that even one experience with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) can make you perpetually trip or permanently insane. Scare tactics like these have been used over the past several decades to demonize psychedelics and deter their use.
Though these rumors are untrue, it is important to note that individuals predisposed to certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, may have adverse effects from a psychedelic experience, including psychosis, and that proper mental health screening should be conducted before engaging in any psychedelic activity.
How to Pursue the Psychedelic Experience Safely
Research and anecdotal evidence makes it clear that psychedelics are a powerful tool to improve the quality of life of those struggling with anxiety. Though we could always use more studies, the benefits of psychedelics for anxiety appear to be lasting and profound. These effects are attainable through both microdosing and more traditional macrodoses in an intentional setting like therapy or ceremony.
But with such a huge potential comes the personal responsibility to undergo these experiences in a manner that protects your mental, emotional, and physical health.
Psychedelics cause temporary psychological and physiological changes and these altered states can make you extremely vulnerable. Without proper support and harm reduction techniques, you may be exposing yourself to risks that could be easily prevented.
That’s why we created our trip sitting and psychedelic guiding program. These programs include support before, during, and after the psychedelic experience. Our facilitators are experienced practitioners who are classically trained in the use of these substances and integrate shamanic healing principles with proven harm reduction protocols.
Our goal is to provide you the professional support you need to gain the most out of your next psychedelic journey. To see if our guided psychedelic experiences are a good fit, you can schedule an initial consultation with us today.