The psychiatric drug industry is massive. More than $70 billion a year in sales, just in the U.S., are for drugs to treat mental health issues—mainly disorders like anxiety and depression.
While psychedelic drugs—LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, etc.—have been stigmatized as reckless party drugs that may even cause mental breakdowns themselves, science is proving the opposite is true and that they may be more helpful in supporting mental and emotional health than previously believed.
In a recent study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, MRI scans of brains under the influence of psilocybin were compared with normal brain activity.
“The brains on psilocybin showed radically different connectivity patterns between cortical regions (the parts thought to play an important role in consciousness),” reports the New York Times. “The researchers mapped out these connections, revealing the activity of new neural networks between otherwise disconnected brain regions.”
This discovery may explain the sort of synesthesia experienced while under the influence of psychedelics—tasting sounds, seeing flavors and aromas, hearing colors, etc. While these effects are almost always temporary, the scientists see potential in treating anxiety and depression disorders with these experiences. “The fact that under the influence of psilocybin the brain temporarily behaves in a new way may be medically significant in treating psychological disorders like depression,” the Times explains. “When suffering depression, people get stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts and cannot get out of it,” lead study author Paul Expert of King’s College London told the Times, “One can imagine that breaking any pattern that prevents a ‘proper’ functioning of the brain can be helpful.”
Psychedelics can be life altering, even years after one experience. In the case of addressing depression, a psychedelic experience, the researchers noted, can serve like a brain reboot. “When ingested, psilocybin metabolizes to psilocin, which resembles the chemical structure of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, sleep, cognitive functions like memory and learning and feelings of pleasure,” the Times explains. “Psilocin may simulate serotonin, and stimulate serotonin receptors in the brain.”
This isn’t the first study to find benefits in psychedelic medications. According to the Times:
One study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2012, rated the vividness of autobiographical memory of subjects on psilocybin and found the drug enhanced their recollection, and ‘subjective well-being’ upon follow-up. The researchers concluded that psilocybin might be useful in psychotherapy as an adjunct therapy to help patients reverse “negative cognitive biases” — a phenomenon common in depression by which one has a greater recall of negative memories than positive ones — and facilitate the recall of important memories.
Other studies have suggested that psilocybin may modify obsessive compulsion by reducing symptoms like repetitive counting or hand-washing, and in a paper published in Neurology in 2006, the authors interviewed cluster headache sufferers who had used psilocybin to treat their horrific condition, and learned that even low doses — less than is needed to actually trip — could bring about remission. (I also know someone who claims psilocybin cured his stuttering.) A study published last year in the journal Experimental Brain Research found that psilocybin eliminated conditioned fear responses in mice, which has implications for sufferers of PTSD. And psilocybin has been shown to relieve anxiety, depression and despair in terminal cancer patients, who describe their experience as giving them a new perspective on their lives.
Psilocybin actually has a history of being explored as a treatment for conditions including alcoholism and aiding the terminally ill as far back as the 1950s, before being banned as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. “But clinical research into psilocybin became professionally marginalized, and research funding dried up about the same time it entered the mainstream as a recreational drug,” reports the Times.
Now, as the Drug War is being exposed as ineffective and incredibly expensive, the perception of psychedelic drugs is changing. Add to that the fact that pharmaceuticals don’t always work for everyone battling mental health issues. It can take a doctor and patient several tries to find a pharmaceutical drug that works for a patient, and the drugs can also have significant side effects. They are expensive, and they can present serious challenges to a patient who decides to stop taking their medication. The author David Foster Wallace’s suicide was connected to his psychiatric medication no longer working when he tried to resume the dosage after a period of time off of the medication.
Anxiety and depression disorders are the most common forms of mental illness in the U.S., with more than 20 percent of Americans taking some sort of mind-altering prescription drugs. These conditions are prevalent around the world, too, considered the leading cause of impairment and disability.
Even with a strong spiritual or religious faith, it’s easy to feel abandoned, anxious, confused, depressed and scared about both living and dying. While there are stigmas about psychedelic drugs, life itself is pretty psychedelic. And enhancing reality with intense psychedelic experiences can reawaken our connections to the mysteriousness of life–and death–taking away some of the anxiety. Often times that includes going directly into our deepest fears first on a psychedelic journey. But it’s the deep clarity and grounded perspective that almost always surfaces after the fear and discomfort of a psychedelic journey that has the potential to last. And if these experiences can reawaken our relationship to ourselves and the earth at a time when we need a good bit of both, isn’t it time we explore all possibilities?
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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