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How Does Psychedelic Therapy Work and What are its Benefits and Risks?

What is Psychedelic Therapy?

Psychedelic therapy is inducing hallucinations using plants and compounds for the treatment of mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The most common compounds used for this purpose are psilocybin from mushrooms, LSD, and mescaline. These alter the level of neurotransmitters level in the brain and induce a mystical experience or teach a person a new way of thinking.(1) Research suggests that psychedelics increase suggestibility and makes a person more open to ideas.(2)

How Does Psychedelic Therapy Work?

How Does Psychedelic Therapy Work?

Psychedelic therapy is known to work with a single dose irrespective of the fact that traditional medication act slowly and works only for the time the treatment is given. How Psychedelic therapy works is not exactly known but the potential ways they might work include:

  • Mystical Experience: Psychedelics may influence a person in such a way that a person may think or behave differently.
  • Increase Suggestibility: Using psychedelics makes a person more responsive to positive suggestions from a therapist that benefit their own hallucinations.
  • Neurotransmitter Changes: Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers in the brain that are responsible for mood changes. Psychedelics act on neurotransmitters and change the behavior of the brain towards improving mood.

Types of Psychedelics

Psychedelics are of different types, a few of which include:(1)

  • LSD: It is a chemical that is found in many plants.
  • MDMA: It is a substance found in the sassafras tree and is known to play the role of Ecstasy drug.
  • DMT: This is a chemical that is present in a few plants.
  • Mescaline: This chemical is found in cacti such as peyote cactus.

Psychedelic treatment can be obtained only via clinical trials as it is an experimental treatment. The types of psychedelic therapies include:

  • Guided Therapy: In this treatment, a person is guided to a psychedelic high helping a person remain calm, and then therapeutic suggestions are offered.
  • Drug-Assisted Therapy: In this psychotherapy is offered along with psychedelics.
  • Psychedelics Alone: In this only psychedelic drug is given with no other treatment.

Benefits of Psychedelic Therapy

The potential health benefits of psychedelic therapies are as follow.

  1. Helpful in Terminal Illnesses

    A person with a terminal illness may have a lot of stress and dread due to illness. Psychedelic therapy may be helpful in easing the dread and also the anxiety and depression that accompany along.

    A study was done on people with cancer and related anxiety and depression. 29 of them were given psilocybin and the rest placebo. It was observed that those who received psilocybin had a reduction in cancer-related anxiety, dread, and hopelessness.(3) Even after 6.5 months, the psilocybin group showed improvement in depression and anxiety.

    Another study was done on 51 people with life-threatening illnesses and showed similar results.(4) The group receiving psychedelics showed significant improvement in moods and relationships.

    The individuals in both studies reported mystical experiences.

  2. Depression and Anxiety

    Psychedelic therapy can also be helpful in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety in people with mental health conditions without any other illness.

    A 2020 review, reported 24 studies on psychedelic drugs to treat anxiety symptoms.(5) It was observed that 65% of the studies reported a reduction in anxiety with psychedelic drugs. However, the studies were small and had some methodological flaws.

    A study was done in 2021 and the experience of 164 people on psychedelic drugs was reported. The participants of the study reported a reduction in depression, anxiety, and stress following psychedelic experiences.(6) As the study was self-reporting it cannot exactly prove the effect of psychedelic drugs on mental health.

  3. Post-traumatic Stress

    The psychedelic effect of hallucinogenic drugs on trauma has mixed results.

    A review looked over the reports of 4 studies of MDMA and 5 studies of ketamine on the treatment of trauma.(7) There was moderate evidence supporting the role of MDMA while the role of ketamine was found to be very low.

  4. Eating Disorder

    The mystic experience of psychedelic drugs may shift a person’s body image away from unhealthy thoughts.

    A review reported people who had undergone psychedelic therapy for eating disorders.(8) Many of them said they experienced new insights under the influence of drugs.

Risks Associated with Psychedelic Drugs

Psychedelic drugs cause powerful changes in the consciousness, which may lead to serious side effects. These include:(1)

  • Psychosis: Psychedelics cause a break from reality that is mostly in people with conditions that are known to cause psychosis.
  • Cardiovascular Issues: Psychedelic drugs elevate heart rate and also blood pressure. Those with a history of heart disease should discuss and inform their healthcare provider before starting psychedelics.
  • Fear: While undergoing therapy some people hallucinate things that terrify them and may induce flashbacks and trauma.

Psychedelic drugs have the ability to induce powerful and immediate psychological changes, which can persist for the long term. It is not properly understood how these drugs act or how their side effects can be reduced. It is mostly given in clinical trials. Those undergoing psychedelic therapy should talk to their provider about joining the trial.

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 25, 2022

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