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How Do Psychedelic Drugs Work?

What Are Psychedelic Drugs?

Psychedelics or psychedelic drugs, also known as hallucinogens or hallucinogenic drugs, are chemicals that are being used today to induce hallucinations and other forms of sensory disturbances. Perhaps the most famous and also notorious form of the psychedelic drug is known as LSD or lysergic acid diethylamide. Some other popular hallucinogens include psilocybin, commonly known as magic mushrooms or shrooms and usually found naturally in wild mushrooms, and mescaline, which is typically found in the plant peyote cactus, found in southwest US and Mexico.

Ecstasy is another psychedelic drug, but it is less hallucinogenic and more stimulating, which means it increases the level of alertness more than magic mushrooms or LSD. Ecstasy is sometimes also classified as a stimulant and even as an empathogen or entactogen inside of a hallucinogen.(1, 2, 3)

Nowadays, psychedelic drugs are being used to treat various mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Some of the most commonly used psychedelic compounds that doctors use in this type of treatment include mushrooms, LSD, and peyote or mescaline. This study of psychedelics for the treatment of mental health conditions is a relatively new field. Still, research indicates that psychedelic drugs can help some people deal with their symptoms, especially in cases where other forms of treatment have failed to show results.

While researchers are very clear as to why or how psychedelic drugs work, but it is believed that they reset the brain by changing the levels of neurotransmitters, giving a new perspective on life by causing a person to undergo a mystical experience, or teaching a new way of thinking.(4, 5)

Read on to find out everything about how psychedelic drugs work and whether psychedelic therapy can help you.

What is Psychedelic Therapy?

Psychedelic therapy makes use of psychedelic drugs or plant compounds that cause hallucinations. Commonly used psychedelic drugs include LSD and psilocybin or magic mushrooms. This form of therapy is used to treat certain types of mental health issues.

While sometimes doctors may prescribe this form of therapy as a standalone treatment, but they often combine psychedelic therapy with other treatments such as therapy or other forms of support. The underlying goal of psychedelic therapy is to increase the success of conventional treatments. In many cases, doctors try psychedelic therapy on those people who have not responded well to other standard therapies or medications.(6, 7)

How Do Psychedelic Drugs Work?

Conventional medications for treating mental health conditions may take a few weeks to start working, or they may only show results for as long as your continue to take them. Most research and studies on psychedelic therapy have found that there is usually an immediate improvement, usually just with a single dose.

While researchers are not very clear on how exactly psychedelic drugs work and why these drugs do not work for everyone, but some of the suggested ways in which they might work are as follows:

  • Creating a Psychedelic or Mystical Experience: It is believed that the intensely meaningful experiences that occur under the influence of psychedelic drugs cause a shift in a person’s mindset or even their belief system. The psychedelic drugs cause a person to behave or think differently.
  • Changes in Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are a particular type of chemical messengers in the brain. There are many mental health drugs that act directly upon these neurotransmitters to change your mood. Certain psychedelic drugs also work on these neurotransmitters and help change the brain’s behavior, thus improving your mood.
  • Increased Suggestibility: People taking psychedelic drugs are believed to be more suggestible. This makes them more responsive to positive suggestions from their therapist and more open to the benefits of their own hallucinations.

Different Types of Psychedelic Drugs

Doctors make use of many types of psychedelic drugs, though most of the research on psychedelic therapy has focused on psilocybin, the substance found in psychedelic mushrooms. Some of the other drugs that are used in psychedelic therapy include:(8)

  • LSD: A chemical that is found in many plants.(9)
  • DMT: A chemical found only in some plants.(10)
  • MDMA: Found in the sassafras tree and has a role to play in the Ecstasy drug.(11, 12)
  • Mescaline: Typically found in the peyote cactus.(13)

Using psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes still remains an experimental treatment only. This means that people can only access this type of treatment with psychedelic drugs by enrolling in clinical trials. Some types of psychedelic therapies that are available include:

  • Drug-Assisted Therapy: This type of therapy takes place when a doctor offers traditional treatments, such as psychotherapy in combination with psychedelic drugs.
  • Guided Therapy: In some types of psychedelic therapy, a doctor or therapist will guide a person through the high psychedelic phase and offer therapeutic suggestions while helping the person remain calm.
  • Psychedelics Alone: A doctor or medical team may only be administering a psychedelic drug with no form of additional treatment.

What Are Some of the Benefits and Uses of Psychedelic Drugs?

Here are some of the potential health benefits of using psychedelic drugs.

  1. Treatment of Depression and Anxiety

    Psychedelic drugs may help relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression in people who do not have any severe illness. A review carried out in 2020 reported that on 24 earlier studies where psychedelic drugs were used to treat the symptoms of anxiety, 65 percent of them reported a dramatic reduction in anxiety with the psychedelics. However, these studies were small-scale and also had some methodological flaws.(14)

    Another study in 2021 surveyed 164 people who reported having a psychedelic experience to discuss mental health symptoms. The participants reported a drastic reduction in their anxiety, depression, and stress levels after the psychedelic experience. An analysis also showed that the participants had a better sense of compassion and less frequent rumination about themselves and their lives.(15)

    However, due to the fact that the study depended on self-reporting, it did not conclusively confirm that psychedelic experiences have a profound effect on mental health. Instead, it just suggested a mechanism through which psychedelic drugs may help improve mental health.

    Another study from 2017 looked at people with treatment-resistant depression. The research team gave 20 participants with the most severe depression two doses of psilocybin within seven days difference and then followed up with them for a period of six months.(16) The researchers observed that there was a significant decrease in the severity of symptoms in the first five weeks following the start of treatment. At five weeks, nine of the participants responded to the treatment, and four had their depression go into remission. Participants also had a higher chance of experiencing betterment in their depression symptoms.

  2. Treatment of Addiction

    There is a growing body of research that shows that psychedelic drugs can help relieve some of the symptoms of addiction.(17) Addiction, along with other mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, usually occur together, which is what explains the benefits.(18) It is believed that by decreasing other mental health symptoms, psychedelic drugs make it easier for the person to quit an addiction.

    A proof-of-concept study from 2015 recruited ten volunteers with alcohol addiction and had them undergo psilocybin therapy in combination with a form of psychotherapy known as a motivational enhancement.(19) During the first four weeks, during which the participants only received psychotherapy, it was found that there was no reduction in their alcohol use. After adding on psychedelic therapy and taking psilocybin, the participants experienced a reduction in their drinking. Participants who had intense psychedelic experiences were found to be more likely to quit drinking.

    Another study from 2016 found that psilocybin may also help people quit smoking. The research followed 15 volunteers who were given both psilocybin and a cognitive-behavioral therapy-based quit smoking method.(20) One year later, it was found that 67 percent of the participants had managed to quit smoking successfully, and after 16 months, only 16 percent remained non-smokers. These can be seen as dramatically high success rates when compared to what doctors see either with just therapy or with other medications.

  3. Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may benefit from the psychedelic effects of these hallucinogenic drugs to help relieve the effects of the traumatic event. However, the research on this so far has been mixed. A systematic review from 2020 analyzed four studies using MDMA and five studies using ketamine for the treatment of trauma. The evidence that supported the use of ketamine alone was relatively low, as was the evidence for the success of ketamine in combination with psychotherapy. Only moderate evidence was found in support of MDMA as well.(21)

    Another study from 2020 was carried out on the homosexual male survivors of the AIDS pandemic who felt demoralized. Participants attended eight to ten group therapy sessions and were administered one dose of psilocybin. After three months, the researchers found a significant reduction in their symptoms of feeling demoralized.(22)

Are There Any Risks Associated With Psychedelic Drugs?

Psychedelic drugs have the ability to induce very powerful changes in a person’s consciousness that can cause some serious side effects. These may include:(23)

  • Fear: Some people may hallucinate some things that terrify them and make them believe they are dying, or it may even induce flashbacks of a traumatic event.
  • Psychosis: Taking psychedelic drugs gives a break from reality, which is even more likely in people who have conditions that are known to cause psychosis.
  • Cardiovascular Issues: Psychedelic drugs may increase your blood pressure and heart rate. This is why people who have a history of heart disease should always make sure to let their doctor know about their condition before taking psychedelics.

It is essential to keep in mind, though, that despite these risks, most studies have not reported any adverse reactions.


Psychedelic drugs induce powerful and almost immediate psychological changes in the brain. Some research has shown that these changes can continue over the long term, offering hope for people who are struggling with serious mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, addiction, etc. Nevertheless, psychedelic drugs still remain an experimental treatment, and you should only do it under the supervision of a professionally trained doctor or therapist.


  1. Grinspoon, L. and Bakalar, J.B., 1979. Psychedelic drugs reconsidered (Vol. 168, pp. 163-166). New York: Basic Books.
  2. Carhart-Harris, R.L. and Goodwin, G.M., 2017. The therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs: past, present, and future. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(11), pp.2105-2113.
  3. Kalant, H., 2001. The pharmacology and toxicology of “ecstasy”(MDMA) and related drugs. Cmaj, 165(7), pp.917-928.
  4. Tupper, K.W., Wood, E., Yensen, R. and Johnson, M.W., 2015. Psychedelic medicine: a re-emerging therapeutic paradigm. Cmaj, 187(14), pp.1054-1059.
  5. Hartogsohn, I., 2018. The meaning-enhancing properties of psychedelics and their mediator role in psychedelic therapy, spirituality, and creativity. Frontiers in neuroscience, 12, p.129.
  6. Marks, M. and Cohen, I.G., 2021. Psychedelic therapy: a roadmap for wider acceptance and utilization. Nature Medicine, 27(10), pp.1669-1671.
  7. Garcia-Romeu, A. and Richards, W.A., 2018. Current perspectives on psychedelic therapy: use of serotonergic hallucinogens in clinical interventions. International Review of Psychiatry, 30(4), pp.291-316.
  8. Tupper, K.W., Wood, E., Yensen, R. and Johnson, M.W., 2015. Psychedelic medicine: a re-emerging therapeutic paradigm. Cmaj, 187(14), pp.1054-1059.
  9. Liechti, M.E., 2017. Modern clinical research on LSD. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(11), pp.2114-2127.
  10. Shulgin, A.T., 1976. DMT & TMA-2. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 8(2), pp.167-169.
  11. Sessa, B., 2018. Why MDMA therapy for alcohol use disorder? And why now?. Neuropharmacology, 142, pp.83-88.
  12. Sessa, B., 2018. Why MDMA therapy for alcohol use disorder? And why now?. Neuropharmacology, 142, pp.83-88.
  13. Jay, M., 2019. Mescaline: a global history of the first psychedelic. Yale University Press.
  14. Weston, N.M., Gibbs, D., Bird, C.I., Daniel, A., Jelen, L.A., Knight, G., Goldsmith, D., Young, A.H. and Rucker, J.J., 2020. Historic psychedelic drug trials and the treatment of anxiety disorders. Depression and Anxiety, 37(12), pp.1261-1279.
  15. Fauvel, B., Strika-Bruneau, L. and Piolino, P., 2021. Changes in self-rumination and self-compassion mediate the effect of psychedelic experiences on decreases in depression, anxiety, and stress. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
  16. Carhart-Harris, R.L., Bolstridge, M., Day, C.M.J., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D.E., Kaelen, M., Giribaldi, B., Bloomfield, M., Pilling, S. and Rickard, J.A., 2018. Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), pp.399-408.
  17. Bogenschutz, M.P., Forcehimes, A.A., Pommy, J.A., Wilcox, C.E., Barbosa, P.C. and Strassman, R.J., 2015. Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: a proof-of-concept study. Journal of psychopharmacology, 29(3), pp.289-299.
  18. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2022. Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness | National Institute on Drug Abuse. [online] Available at: <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness> [Accessed 14 August 2022].
  19. Bogenschutz, M.P., Forcehimes, A.A., Pommy, J.A., Wilcox, C.E., Barbosa, P.C. and Strassman, R.J., 2015. Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: a proof-of-concept study. Journal of psychopharmacology, 29(3), pp.289-299.
  20. Johnson, M.W., Garcia-Romeu, A. and Griffiths, R.R., 2017. Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 43(1), pp.55-60.
  21. Varker, T., Watson, L., Gibson, K., Forbes, D. and O’Donnell, M.L., 2021. Efficacy of psychoactive drugs for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: a systematic review of MDMA, ketamine, LSD and psilocybin. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 53(1), pp.85-95.
  22. Anderson, B.T., Danforth, A., Daroff, R., Stauffer, C., Ekman, E., Agin-Liebes, G., Trope, A., Boden, M.T., Dilley, J., Mitchell, J. and Woolley, J., 2020. Psilocybin-assisted group therapy for demoralized older long-term AIDS survivor men: An open-label safety and feasibility pilot study. EClinicalMedicine, 27, p.100538.
  23. Tupper, K.W., Wood, E., Yensen, R. and Johnson, M.W., 2015. Psychedelic medicine: a re-emerging therapeutic paradigm. Cmaj, 187(14), pp.1054-1059.
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 16, 2022

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