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Psychedelic-assisted Therapy: Help or Hindrance?

Posted by Alex Molyneux
on 07 Feb 2022

Psychedelic therapy is a technique that involves the use of psychedelic substances to aid the therapeutic process. Hallucinogenic substances have been used in holistic medicine and for spiritual practices by various cultures for thousands of years, yet their efficacy is still somewhat inconsistent and relatively unknown.

In the ’50s and ’60s, research on psychedelics began to flourish, with hundreds of studies taking place all over the U.S. But when LSD was made illegal in 1966 followed closely by mushrooms in 1968, all clinical trials and studies stopped to a grinding halt. 

Although some studies were still being carried out behind closed doors, it wasn’t until scientists and advocates finally broke through, and the new millennium brought with it a new lease of life for psychedelic research. Over the last two decades, researchers have gotten approval from authorities to conduct trials on the use of these substances to treat various conditions.

Today, psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (the active ingredient found in ‘magic mushrooms’) and LSD are believed to have the potential to treat a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and addiction. There’s even research to show that psilocybin is not only safe but that it can produce significant positive effects on well-being.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is becoming increasingly popular and has recently been getting a lot of attention online. While further research is needed, current trials are underway to better determine the applications and effectiveness of using different psychedelic drugs to treat specific conditions. Although much of the research conducted to date appears promising, the results and outcomes are far from concrete.

One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the mood improvements induced by psychedelic drugs appear to have lasting benefits. People who took psilocybin continued to experience improved well-being and increased social connectedness, even after the substances wore off. While this may be true for some, there are many cases where people suffering from depression return to a similar state of mind – or worse – just a few weeks after the therapy. 

Ketamine and psychotherapy are also becoming popular ways of treating different mental disorders and ketamine will soon be legal to use as a medical treatment in the UK.

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Psychedelic-assisted therapy techniques

Because there is no standardised method of administration and practice for psychedelic-assisted therapy just yet, individual practitioners have their own methods for administering the drug and how they set up the experience. However, there are often a few common elements that the majority of practitioners will adhere to:

  1. Administration of a low to moderate dose of a psychedelic drug 
  2. Supervision by a professional during the psychedelic experience
  3. Repeating the psychedelic dose with one to two weeks between sessions

During a psychedelic session, factors known as ‘set’ and ‘setting’ are critical to ensuring the experience is as safe and comfortable as possible.

‘Set’ refers to things such as mood and expectations, ensuring the patient is aware of what is going to happen, what they might experience and how it might feel during and after the experience. ‘Setting’ refers to the environment where the session takes place and the relationship with the therapist. Both are critical to the therapy.

The goal is to ensure the patient is comfortable with both the therapist and the room where the session will take place. It is also important for guests to go into the experience feeling calm and attentive.

After the psychedelic experience, the focus at the next step is a process known as integration. These psychotherapy sessions are designed to help the individual process, make sense of, and find meaning in the psychedelic experience.

Potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy

Psychedelics are believed to have a range of benefits for treating mental health conditions and for our mental health overall. Research suggests the work by affecting and recalibrating the neural circuits that use the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Some of the potential benefits and feelings associated with psychedelic-assisted therapy include:

  • Feelings of relaxation
  • Improved sense of wellbeing
  • Increased social connectedness
  • Introspection
  • Spiritual experiences 

After taking psychedelic substances, some people report having mystical or spiritual experiences and describe having intense feelings of peace, joy, unity, and empathy.

It’s important to remember that while psychedelics can produce positive benefits, it is also common for people to experience effects such as:

  • Seeing, hearing and feeling things that aren’t there
  • Altered sense of time
  • Distortions of reality
  • Distorted perceptual experiences
  • Intense perceptions or emotions
  • Paranoia

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), these effects are a type of drug-induced psychosis that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others, think rationally, and interpret reality. When used in a therapeutic setting under the supervision of a trained professional to help them integrate and understand these experiences, psychedelic therapy has the potential to help relieve the symptoms of certain psychiatric conditions.

Effects on anxiety and mood disorders

One psilocybin-assisted therapy study found that around 80% of participants continued to show improvements in quality of life, optimism, reduced anxiety over mortality and more six months after their treatment. 

Another study looked at the effects of real-world psychedelic use by surveying music festival attendees. The participants reported that taking LSD and psilocybin helped improve mood and feel more socially connected. They also reported that these effects continued even after the drugs had worn off.

Effects on alcohol and substance use disorders

A 2015 study found that psilocybin-assisted therapy was associated with decreased drinking, reduced alcohol cravings, and increased abstinence. However, psychedelic therapy’s efficacy for alcohol and substance use has not yet been clearly established. 

One 2012 study found that a single dose of LSD had a beneficial effect on alcohol misuse up to six months after treatment, but the effects were not significant at the 12-month mark.

Another study in 2019 involved surveying people who had already quit using alcohol with the use of psychedelics. While only 10% of the respondents used psychedelics intentionally as a way to reduce alcohol use, more than 25% reported that the hallucinogenic experience played a role in changing their alcohol use.

NOTE: The problem with these studies is that many of them are based on self-reports by people who have taken psychedelics in the past. In order to determine if psychedelic therapy is truly effective in the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders, more research using official randomized clinical trials is needed.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Clinical trials have demonstrated the treatment’s long-term efficacy in the treatment of PTSD. A study found that 54% of participants no longer met the criteria for diagnosis following treatment. Only 23% of participants in the control group no longer met the diagnostic criteria upon follow-up.

In another study using MDMA (more commonly known as ecstasy), 68% of participants also did not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD a year after treatment.

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Potential dangers of psychedelic-assisted therapy

While psychedelic therapy is generally considered safe and is well-tolerated, there are some potential risks and adverse effects to consider. Although LSD and psilocybin pose few risks in terms of physical or psychological dependence, there are other effects and risks to consider that make psychedelic-assisted therapy potentially dangerous. 

Negative psychological reactions

The potential for negative psychological reactions with symptoms like anxiety, panic, and paranoia are fairly common during and after psychedelic experiences. The use of psychedelics can also result in what is known as a “bad trip.” These experiences are marked by intense and terrifying feelings of anxiety and the fear of losing control, which can be very scary and have lasting effects.

Possible personality changes

Some have suggested that these drugs have the potential to produce long-term personality-changing effects. For example, a study found that psilocybin therapy was associated with increases in extraversion and openness. These findings suggest that people may become more outgoing and willing to try new things after being treated with psilocybin-assisted therapy, which can be good or bad depending on who you are and what kind of person you want to be. 

Dangers of self-treatment

Another potential concern is the possibility of people using psychedelic substances to self-treat. Self-treatment can pose a number of risks including the psychological dangers of experiencing a bad trip, the possibility of drug interactions, and the fact that many street drugs are mixed with unknown and potentially harmful substances.

The bottom line is, there’s still no hard evidence to suggest that psychedelic-assisted therapy is an effective treatment for the mental health conditions like many researchers have hypothesised. Although some of the research does appear promising, without further trials with larger sample sizes and more detailed studies – it’s impossible to tell whether psychedelic-assisted therapy is here to stay. 

If you’re considering giving psychedelic-assisted therapy either because a doctor has offered it to you as an option or because you’re thinking about enquiring, just remember that the effects can be unpredictable and vary from person to person. So although you may find psychedelics work a charm and completely transform your mental state for the better, just be aware that there’s potential for things to take a very different turn.

At Delamere, we believe in a holistic approach to recovery free from any assistance from substances, regardless of their efficacy. We aim to help guests create a life where they aren’t relying upon any substances to feel happy and fulfilled, and we’ll continue to live and breathe this philosophy for the foreseeable future.

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About the author: Alex Molyneux

Alex is the Admissions Manager at Delamere. Alex has organised more admissions into treatment than most. Find out more about Alex on our team page.

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