Psychedelic therapy is a technique in the therapeutic process that utilizes psychedelic substances to get results. This is not a new concept, as these substances have been used by humankind throughout history in many spiritual practices, rituals, and medicine.
Actual research on psychedelic-assisted therapy spiked in the ’50s and ’60s before dropping off and picking back up in the ’90s. While hallucinogens are illegal in places such as the United States, they show promise for treating a wide range of conditions. But bad press and fear often hamper patients’ willingness to explore this treatment option.
The good news is that recent trials in the past couple of decades have proven that psychedelic substances can have beneficial effects. Positive impacts are even more significant when psychedelic therapy is used in a carefully controlled clinical setting. The results are long-lasting and can provide significant change when it comes to addiction or mental health.
Here’s what you need to know about using hallucinogens for psychedelic therapy so that you and your care provider can explore the option.
History of Psychedelic Therapy
Where there was plant life, there was a chance for the discovery of hallucinogens. The use of these plants dates back thousands of years and has a deep history in every continent except Antarctica.
Scientists didn’t truly try to discover the potential uses of these substances until the ’40s. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was the primary focus of this research throughout the following two decades, with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) coming in a close second.
Any progress being made came to a halt in 1970 when the US passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This classified hallucinogens like LSD as Schedule I substances, which means there was potential for abuse with no medicinal value.
There was still research done on the subject despite the CSA, and interest slowly began to rekindle. Scientists once again received the go-ahead to begin clinical trials with the more trusted substances, and the research has continued ever since.
The Effects of Psychedelics
Psychedelics are powerful substances, and results can vary greatly. They can treat several mental health conditions but also have the capability of producing mind-altering effects. Careful use is necessary to get a positive end result.
Some of the known effects of psychedelics are:
- Altered sense of time
- Increased intensity of emotions or perceptions
- Sensing things that you wouldn’t usually experience (hallucinations)
- Spiritual experiences
- Intense introspection
Due to the wide range and potential intensity of psychedelic effects, it’s advised only to use them in a controlled environment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that while in use, they can affect rational thinking, perception of reality, and communication with others.
Depending on the substance and amount used, there can also by physiological effects like:
- Increased heart rate
- Increase blood pressure
According to research and clinical trial data, user experiences can vary by a large margin. Even in a controlled environment, a person’s personality and mood can significantly sway the end result.
Many substances produce psychedelic effects, but not all of them are applicable for psychedelic therapy. Some of the more common substances used are:
LSD therapy is one of the more common ways people are being treated with psychedelics. Treating addiction (alcohol) or anxiety are potential uses for LSD. Using this substance leads to changes in mood, perceptions, and consciousness.
When not used in a clinical environment, there are a couple of risks if misused. Physical effects typically appear as dizziness, weakness, and tremors. Mental effects can manifest as psychosis or a persistent change in perception even after the drug has worn off.
Psilocybin therapy is another common treatment. Much like LSD, it has been used to treat addiction (tobacco and alcohol) and anxiety, but it’s also been useful in combating depression. It similarly changes the user’s mood, perceptions, and consciousness.
The potential risks of misuse are identical to those of LSD. Dizziness, weakness, and tremors have all been reported during use, along with the potential for psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.
Ayahuasca originates in South America, making it a less common treatment than LSD or psilocybin. It has been effective against addiction (alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco), anxiety, and depression. Changes in mood, perceptions, and consciousness are common effects.
Using ayahuasca can lead to dizziness, weakness, tremors, and even nausea. The potential for psychosis is also there, as well as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome is a higher than normal amount of serotonin in the brain and can be quite dangerous.
Mescaline is a cactus-based hallucinogenic. It comes from the deserts of the US, Mexico, and South America. Therapists have used it primarily to help with alcohol addiction, but it’s also an important religious substance in Native American culture.
Like many of the other hallucinogens, the changes in mood, perceptions, and consciousness are accompanied by dizziness, weakness, tremors, and abnormal skin sensations. Psychosis is the primary risk of this substance.
MDMA, better known as ecstasy, isn’t a classic psychedelic substance. However, it can produce similar effects and has even been shown to help people suffering from PTSD. Unlike other psychedelics, the use of MDMA results in feelings of euphoria, an increase in arousal and sociability, and altered perceptions.
Using ecstasy doesn’t have many physical drawbacks, but the potential for some mental side effects is still there. These include short-term depression, sleep disruption, and even memory impairment.
Hallucinogens are not a cure-all drug, but research has discovered plenty of applications that apply to a wide margin of the population. Users with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and certain addictions have all reacted positively to psychedelic therapy.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mood disorders, and research has shown that hallucinogens have a positive effect on people diagnosed with these disorders. A lot of research centers on specific forms of mood disorders like anxiety in terminally ill patients.
Even just a single dose of psilocybin was shown to have long-lasting results. In a double-blind study on patients diagnosed with life-threatening cancer strains, the psilocybin successfully reduced their anxiety and increased quality of life.
Another study looked at those who attended musical festivals, as the use of hallucinogens at similar events has become almost a given. Increased sociability and elevated mood were both reported, as well as a continuation of the positive effects even after the drug wore off.
Substance Use Disorders
Studies for using hallucinogens to treat substance use are far less advanced than those for mood disorders. Much of the findings for this research came from self-reports from people that used hallucinogens previously while also having a substance use disorder.
The use of hallucinogens to treat substance use is still being researched, but it has not been disproven yet. As it stands, there have been several cases where people were able to abstain or reduce their cravings after a single use of psychedelic therapy with LSD or psilocybin.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
People who have PTSD showed no positive results with any psychedelic substance except for MDMA. One study showed that over half of the participants no longer met the criteria of having PTSD after MDMA related treatment.
These benefits were also long-lasting. Almost 70% of participants still did not meet the criteria for PTSD a year after the treatment. Research is still being done, but so far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Mood disorders, substance use disorders, and PTSD are all disorders that hallucinogens have been shown to help so far. Researchers are exploring other ailments that can be treated with psychedelic therapy.
Some of these are:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety related to autism
- Treatment-resistant depression
How Psychedelic Therapy Works
There is no standardized or go-to way to administer hallucinogens, so specific therapy comes down to the individual practitioner. While specific methods may vary wildly, there are a few constants that most practitioners tend to follow.
Low to Moderate Dose
A doctor would rarely leap straight into administering a large dose. Giving patients a smaller dose allows them to see how the patient’s body reacts to it and potentially avoid some of the negative side effects that can occur with higher doses.
Self-users of hallucinogens sometimes use what is known as micro-dosing. This is a practice where a fraction of a dose is used in order to get the positives that the drug can provide while completely avoiding negative side effects or the psychedelic experience.
A psychedelic experience can be disorienting and sometimes scary. Most practitioners will make sure a professional is with the patient during the experience to ensure safety and monitor for any changes.
These professionals can notice signs of an adverse reaction early and know how to handle these situations. Having someone who’s knowledgeable about the whole process can make the experience more positive, too.
Many practitioners will have patients come back for several sessions to either adjust the amount or maintain a positive direction. There will typically be one to two weeks between sessions to allow the patient to fully recover and see how the disorder has been affected.
Setting and Mood
Because hallucinogen’s impact on the human body relies so heavily on certain factors, most practitioners will do their best to eliminate harmful variables. They typically provide a comfortable setting for the experience and try to promote a calm and attentive mood.
The hallucinogens help patients reflect and overcome their disorder, but psychotherapy sessions can further enhance a patient’s revelation. They are designed to help the patient make sense of their experience and how it applies to them.
Psychedelic therapy is generally safe, and a doctor won’t attempt to give you a large enough dose to cause negative effects. However, hallucinogens do affect the brain, and there’s always a chance of risk when using drugs like LSD and psilocybin.
Occasionally a psychedelic experience will take a negative turn, commonly known as a bad trip. Users may experience paranoia, anxiety, and even panic until the drug wears off. Since the reactions are mental, negative emotions can last for an extended period of time.
There’s no risk of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario, but using hallucinogens can potentially change the user’s personality. There are many accounts of psilocybin treatments leading to an increase in openness and a willingness to try new things that the user didn’t have before.
Many people consider hallucinogens as recreational drugs or hear about the benefits and attempt to self-treat. Self-treating is risky due to the complete loss of the security blanket that comes with experiencing the same treatment a controlled environment.
Street versions of hallucinogens run the risk of being contaminated or being mixed with other drugs. In the event of a bad trip, the user won’t typically have a professional nearby that can help get them through the experience.
The Future of Psychedelic Therapy
The stigma against hallucinogens is on the decline, and even established places like John Hopkins University have opened centers dedicated to studying psychedelic drugs’ benefits.
The most advanced studies revolve around using LSD and psilocybin, and they are set to progress past determining if the treatment works and into determining how well it works.
Psilocybin treatment was even labelled by the FDA as a breakthrough therapy, allowing even further effort and research to be put towards the project. This label indicates that psilocybin treatment has treated serious conditions.
It’s highly recommended that people considering getting psychedelic therapy treatment for their mental health or other challenges should continue counselling during and after treatment. Consult your doctor and therapist to see if psychedelic treatment has the potential to help you.
Continuing to check in with your care provider can help minimize any negative effects of your therapy and ensure you receive the appropriate pre- and post-care. Maintaining open communication with your doctor and therapist means better results no matter the condition you are experiencing.