Following decades of psychedelic prohibition, researchers and the psychedelic community have been working in tandem to explore the healing potential of psychedelics. One area in which psychedelics show tremendous healing potential is with PTSD. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD or simply have a past trauma that you’d like to heal, psychedelics can help—here’s how.
What Exactly is PTSD?
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, can be triggered by a range of disturbing events, including accidents, physical assault, sexual abuse, or any type of violence. While PTSD is typically the result of just a single traumatic event, it can produce symptoms like anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of re-experiencing the event, and depressed mood that persist over a period of time.
Slightly different and more severe, CPTSD, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is associated with some of the same symptoms as PTSD, including depressed moods and the chronic and repeated reliving of traumatic events. However, it’s slightly different in that it’s typically the result of persistent and numerous traumatic events.
CPTSD may be the result of situations like prolonged domestic abuse or ongoing childhood neglect. It may be a result of years of trauma and is associated with symptoms like difficulties in regulating emotions and relational problems that persist just as long.
Between PTSD and CPTSD, a patient may be suffering from a range of either singularly-occurring or ongoing symptoms like flashbacks; nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, people, or places; hypervigilance; a sense of threat; heightened emotions; difficulties in regulating anger; negative self-concept; feelings of guilt; feelings of disconnectedness; interpersonal problems; mood changes; self-harm; self-damaging impulsiveness; and paranoia or dissociation, among many others.
In addition, people who suffer from PTSD are more likely to suffer from other adverse health conditions like stroke, cardiovascular disease, major depressive disorder, suicidal behavior, metabolic syndrome, and substance abuse.
With symptoms like these and with estimates that anywhere from 33 to 50% of PTSD sufferers are resistant to conventional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It’s no wonder that people are looking to novel types of treatment—like psychedelics.
How do Psychedelics Help People Heal Past Traumas?
For someone suffering from PTSD, psychotherapy is generally thought of as the first line of treatment but may take months or even years for significant results to occur. However, even with psychotherapy, a PTSD patient will typically suffer from PTSD symptoms chronically and with elevated rates of co-occurring psychiatric and medical conditions.
What this means is that the risks of PTSD symptoms may be so severe that the patient simply cannot wait for these long-term changes to take place. Where psychotherapy falls short, however, is where psychedelics may present their greatest treatment potential. Here’s why.
When someone has spent months or years repressing the thoughts and emotions associated with trauma, uncovering and processing these typically don’t happen in just a few hour-long appointments. Psychedelics are such a promising approach for PTSD thanks to their ability to allow one to get to the levels of processing similar to months or years of psychotherapy—all within several hours.
Psychotherapy requires a tremendous effort on the part of the patient. Not just with scheduling appointments with therapists, but also with opening up to difficult past experiences and traumatic events. One of the symptoms of PTSD is the inability to form relationships with other people and problems with closeness, trust, and communication. This makes opening up to a therapist extremely difficult, which is why up to 50% of sufferers don’t find relief from CBT.
Psychedelics help to remove some of these social barriers and allow the patient to engage with and process emotions or memories that have been contained in their subconscious. They go one step further to also elicit feelings of closeness and connectedness that allow someone to work more effectively with a therapist.
When it comes to treating PTSD, processing the trauma is an essential part of treatment, and with psychedelics, that could happen in the span of just a few experiences, instead of years of therapy appointments.
What Psychedelics are Being Used to Treat PTSD?
Over the span of the past two decades, just two types of pharmaceutical medication have been approved by the FDA to treat PTSD—and both have very limited efficacy.
With a demonstrated need for novel approaches to PTSD treatment, a range of psychedelics are being explored for their treatment potential. One has received breakthrough designations from the US Food and Drug Administration for its effectiveness in treating PTSD.
We’ll take a look at this substance—MDMA—as well as some of the other psychedelic drugs that are being explored for their healing potential.
MDMA for PTSD Treatment
3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), simply put, has been considered “the perfect drug for trauma-related psychotherapy.”
MDMA’s treatment potential for PTSD is the result of several different areas of the brain and their related neurochemicals.
By activating serotonin receptors, MDMA minimizes feelings of depression and anxiety. It also reduces amygdala activity which increases feelings of self-confidence, compassion, empathy, and an overall positive mood. Increases in noradrenaline and dopamine levels lead to increased arousal and awareness, which is understood to motivate engagement in therapy.
Paradoxically, while arousal may be heightened, MDMA also elicits a relaxation/sedation effect which has been understood to dampen the fear response, reduce trauma-induced hypervigilance, and better allow for the processing and discussion of the traumatic experience.
Release of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) contributes to feelings of empathy and closeness with others, which allows for an improved relationship and increased trust with a therapist. Similarly, elevated levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) adds to feelings of empathy and self-compassion, while also allowing for safe recalls of painful thoughts and memories associated with the traumatic event(s).
It’s clear to see why MDMA is viewed as such a welcomed addition to a therapist’s toolbox. MDMA doesn’t cloud consciousness and allows for someone to safely, fully, and compassionately process their trauma, which can be a catalyst for psychotherapy.
Currently, phase 3 studies are underway in countries like the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the Czech Republic. Given that MDMA continues to produce promising study results, we’ll likely see MDMA being used as a licensed treatment by 2021.
Psilocybin’s Potential for PTSD Treatment
While psilocybin has been designated as a FDA breakthrough therapy to treat major depressive disorders, including treatment-resistant depression, it has yet to really be recognized for its potential to treat PTSD.
In August 2020 it was recently announced, however, that the first trial with psilocybin and PTSD-suffering veterans will take place with the Leiden University Medical Center of The Netherlands. This will be the first peer-reviewed study to investigate psilocybin’s efficacy as a treatment for PTSD.
A clinical protocol will need to be submitted and reviewed before the actual study takes place. From there, it’s anticipated that the trials will start in the Netherlands before spreading to the rest of Europe and North America.
Psychedelics and PTSD Processing and Symptom Reduction
While evidence suggesting that other psychedelics could help treat PTSD isn’t as abundant as it is with MDMA, there’s still reason to suggest that psychedelic substances like ketamine, LSD, DMT, and ayahuasca could play a role in PTSD treatment.
Most classical psychedelics and ketamine have been shown to minimize activity in the amygdala when emotional processing is taking place. When someone is exposed to difficult thoughts or memories, this may allow them to process them more effectively without the heightened responses they would usually experience.
When it comes to ketamine, the dissociative states it is known for may also work to counteract hyperarousal brought on by PTSD.
While this hypothesis (and similar ones for other psychedelics) have only been tested on animals (if at all), it is thought that by combining psychedelics with trauma-focused psychotherapy, someone with PTSD may find that they have enhanced access to formerly-repressed memories, an easier time processing difficult thoughts and emotions, and a deeper relationship with themselves and a therapist.
Additionally, PTSD is considered to be a “synaptic disconnection syndrome,” whereby the brain loses some of its plasticity. The ability of different psychedelics to increase neuronal connections in different areas of the brain may also help to reduce PTSD symptoms.
Overall, psychedelics have been understood to facilitate emotional empathy, enhance mindfulness, and increase insightfulness, acceptance, and connectedness. By feeling more open to the thoughts that arise and the memories that are re-visited—as well as the connection with a therapist—these substances are not only helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms but also addressing the root cause, the repressed traumatic memories, directly.
Cannabinoids to Assist with PTSD Symptom Relief
While the cannabis plant contains more than 100 different cannabinoids, most of us are familiar with just two: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis and CBD has been extensively studied for its ability to treat a range of health conditions, including seizures and chronic pain.
All cannabinoids act on the endocannabinoid system, which also happens to regulate emotional memories and stress responses. It’s understood that increased endocannabinoid signaling (via cannabis or synthetic cannabinoids) may provide temporary relief for symptoms associated with PTSD, like sleeping problems, intrusive memories, and hyperarousal. In fact, a lesser-known cannabinoid, THCv, has been shown to help reduce panic attacks and other PTSD related symptoms.
Like the other psychedelics mentioned here, cannabinoids may also help to move past fear and allow for greater exposure to traumatic memories and, therefore, better results from therapy. In addition, the psychoactive effects of THC have also demonstrated the potential for assisting someone in processing traumatic memories through its ability to reduce amygdala fear responses.
Self Love and Compassion with Psychedelics
If there’s something to be learned by sifting through scientific articles regarding psychedelics and PTSD it’s this: that self-love and compassion can go a long way in working through your trauma.
For many who suffer from PTSD, reliving the traumatic experience can sometimes bring about feelings of self-doubt, shame, and guilt. One of the reasons MDMA has been so effective in helping people who have experienced trauma is because it instills some empathy and self-love in an individual and allows them to view their experiences with alleviated self-judgment.
And while it’s very possible to get this from a psychedelic experience alone, working with a coach or mentor can help. We can help you use the self-love, empathy, and compassion you discovered with the psychedelic substance in your day-to-day life.
You can reframe your relationship with trauma during your psychedelic experience and have someone help you to integrate that understanding into your life through practices like conscious body movement, journaling, meditation, sound healing, or mindful walks in nature.
You Can’t Heal on Your Own
Reading this may have piqued your interest in psychedelics—so much so that you want to plan a psychedelic experience soon. However, when it comes to working through trauma and dealing with PTSD, we’d recommend that you explore all of your options first.
Conventional treatments for PTSD obviously have many shortcomings and don’t provide adequate relief for most suffers. However, exploring psychedelic alternatives without the support of a knowledgeable health care professional may put you at risk, especially considering the high consequences of some of the most negative symptoms of PTSD.
That’s why we’d recommend that you do some research to determine what line of treatment works best for you and your symptoms. It’s important to explore all options—including both Western and less traditional outlets, like psychedelics. We understand that the task at hand can sound rather daunting, and we’re here to answer any questions and alleviate any concerns you may have regarding incorporating psychedelics into your mental health plan.
It’s safe to say that conventional treatment modalities don’t work for the vast majority of people dealing with PTSD. Fortunately, although there haven’t been many studies directly evaluating psychedelics and their potential to treat PTSD (due in large part to decades of prohibition), we can understand their potential to not just serve as a bandaid to contain PTSD symptoms, but as a way to address the cause of the symptoms and process it in a way to lead to long-term and sustained healing.
Any treatment that has a chance to help those suffering from PTSD should be considered. For those of us suffering from traumatic experiences where conventional therapies aren’t working, the future should look bright as we start to embrace some of these alternative (and effective!) forms of treatment.