In an episode of Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘The Goop Lab’, one of the guests aptly states, “As a culture, we’re hungry for something to help us heal”. This is precisely what Paltrow’s lifestyle brand aims to achieve – provide alternatives that allow us to heal, emotionally and physically. We soon realize that the illness of our society is inherently to do with our own trauma, anxieties and pain. Therapies don’t always help, while pharmaceutical drugs can prove to be risky.
What other alternative do we have? Goop loudly and proudly suggests psychedelic psychotherapy. Of course, right from the moment we read psychedelics, we feel an increasing hesitance. At the same time, we’re also aware of the growing scientific research in the field. But does psychedelic therapy really work? Are there any concerns and consequences? We’re here to help you get to the truth.
All of us have encountered psychedelic trips in pop-culture, especially through films. Psychedelics are a class of drugs that cause these altered state of consciousness. The term is derived from the Greek words psyche and delein which mean “soul” and “to manifest” respectively. These drugs trigger psychedelic experiences by activating serotonin receptors that lead to thought, visual and auditory changes. Most common examples of psychedelic drugs include MDMA, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and DMT.
Psychedelic trips are supposed to be mystical or spiritual experiences that open one’s “third-eye”. One can’t help but think of Hippies talking about peace. Along with this, these trips have usually been seen as cautionary tales. After all, U.S. banned LSD in 1966, followed by several psychedelic drugs being declared illegal under the U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. Interestingly, research has shown psychedelics to be the safest of drugs, also stating that they do not lead to addiction. Instead, research reveals therapeutic benefits of these drugs. No wonder then that these drugs are making a comeback in psychotherapy.
What is Psychedelic Psychotherapy?
At a first glance, psychedelics and poor mental health may sound like a terrible combination – and in certain settings and dosage they may be. But the past decades have revealed that they are actually greatly beneficial. Psychedelic psychotherapy is the clinical use of psychedelic drugs to treat certain mental disorders, which include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, existential anxiety, as well as addiction. But of course, these involve using controlled portions, in a clinical setting, with trained psychotherapists.
Different drugs are used for different purposes, with the most recent breakthrough being MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. On January 17, 2020, FDA agreed on an Expanded Access program for this therapy seeing the remarkable results conducted in previous clinical trials. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has played a crucial role in this, and at actively working on the medical benefits of psychedelics.
Apart from MDMC, psilocybin has also show great results with patients suffering from anxiety, depression and nicotine addiction. In fact, studies were conducted in both Johns Hopkins University, and NYU on cancer-patients suffering from existential anxiety who were treated with psilocybin. The results both these studies revealed decreased anxiety and depressed mood, alongside increased quality of life and optimism.
Another study revealed that psilocybin psychotherapy helped 60% people quit smoking in 12 months. This is a remarkable feat compared to most leading pharmacotherapy for nicotine cessation which usually have a success rate of 21% at 12 months. Apart from these, LSD and Ibogaine are also used for psychotherapy.
Psychedelic Psychotherapy: Pros and Cons
Psychedelic drugs are considered to be least harmful drugs, with psilocybin being the safest, while heroin and cocaine are amongst the most harmful. Another important thing to note is that psychedelic drugs are not chemically addictive. But they may be psychologically addictive. Having said that, these drugs may illicit short-term negative effects. The most common of this is, of course, bad trips. These usually result from inappropriate dosage, inappropriate set, and inappropriate setting.
In psychedelic psychotherapy, efforts are taken to maintain a controlled dose in a safe, clinical setting. One needs to understand this type of psychotherapy is much different than psychedelic being used for recreational purposes. In fact, the psychedelics used in the therapy are different from the ones found on street. Intake of adulterated psychedelics can prove to be harmful. The most common example of this is LSD and MDMA where people have consumed high doses of synthetic hallucinogens, leading to serious effects.
At the same time, it is virtually impossible to die of overdosing on psychedelics. But there have been reports where overdosing did lead to temporary but serious issues – including a short coma. Along with these there are certain short-term side effects like dizziness, blurred vision, weakness and tremors. They can also raise the blood pressure, but are almost never life-threatening. However, there was one case where a 34-year-old man with an undiagnosed heart condition. He went into cardiac arrest after taking LSD recreationally and died.
But in psychedelic psychotherapy, the patient is fully prepared beforehand, taught certain coping strategies, and have a trained psychotherapist with them at all times. Psychedelics play a remarkable role in healing individiduals with PTSD and anxiety as they allow the patients to directly face their issues and emotions, something that they may not be able to do otherwise. Particularly MDMA mutes amygdala (the fear response) which helps the patient to deal with their past better. The mystical/spiritual experience caused by psychedelics also deeply help with depression and anxiety. Looking at these, one can suggests that the benefits of psychedelics may outweigh the risks, especially for patients with severe mental illnesses.