As we enter another psychedelic hype, more science is proving the benefits of treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addictions through the use of such psychedelics. Social impact professionals are familiar with the toll that anxiety and frustration can take on their livelihoods, as our work can feel particularly high stakes and is often closely bound with our values and identity. In this article we will explore the therapeutic use of psychedelics to contribute to our overall mental well-being and whether it can aid our search for purpose.
Psychedelics are back! After the ´70s witch-hunt, these highly polemic substances are kicking it at research and media coverage. Over the last decade, we have seen great growth in scientific research and discussions, from ted-talks to international forums, podcasts, and all sorts of stories. The hype is evident, and the purpose of its use is diversifying.
While for decades these substances were believed to belong only to the party scene and hippie communities, more and more information is revealed about their therapeutic use to help people overcome and treat mental disorders.
The point about psychedelics is that, when we talk about them, we are talking about mental health and right after, neuroscience. It is no longer about drugs or intoxicating escape paths from reality. We talk about the possibility to tackle human suffering diving into a mental and existential perspective where disorders like anxiety, depression, addictions, or PTSD can be managed. This perspective is the one of consciousness, which as interesting as it sounds, is for some the final target of psychedelic research, and for others the one realm humans will never fully understand.
Psychedelic substances have proved to allow the people who experience them a higher way of accessing and understanding their emotions, feelings, personal story, and deep motivations for each experience they had, and the imprints left on their personal stories. Additionally, it fosters the feeling and deep knowledge of interconnectedness. By bringing in some of the science behind it, we will be looking specifically at cases where psychedelics help treat anxiety and how it contributes to those having a “change-the-world” job. Let's start by defining psychedelic drugs first.
What are psychedelics?
Published in 2018, How to Change Your Mind. The New Science of Psychedelics is probably one of the most recent and relevant works on the topic. Michael Pollan collects the findings of new research starting in the ´90s with the most common mind-manifesting substances: LSD, MDMA, 5MeO-DMT, psilocybin, and ayahuasca. Substances that share the same properties:
- Produce hallucinations
- Cause dissolution of one´s ego
- Collapse the distinction between subject and object
- Create long-lasting molecular effects through changing neuronal structure, that is, changing user's mind
LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hoffman, working for a Swiss pharmaceutical firm in 1938. Five years later, after revisiting the molecule, a famous bicycle ride took him back home miraculously while experiencing what is known as the first trip with the substance. While MDMA was developed in 1912 by Merck laboratories and came back to the psychotherapy scene in the ´70s. Once it became illicit, it moved to the center of electronic music parties and raves, were fell in hands of adulterations and modifications to its original formula, adding serious risks to its consumers.
On the other hand, psilocybin and ayahuasca belong to the group of entheogens (from ancient Greek, a food full of God). They are known to be used among indigenous and aboriginal communities throughout the world. The entheogens are part of common religious practices, acting as keys to unlock and access the mysteries of the Universe, a deep understanding of life, nature, and essential individual purpose. Also known as medicines, they are believed to heal and cure.
The 5MeO-DMT, or “god´s molecule”, can be found in both plants and the secretion of one toad species. A very particular aspect of DMT is that it´s also found in the human brain, as recent research has found: “DMT is produced naturally from neurons of the mammalian brain and may contribute to some aspects of higher-order brain functions (such as conscious information processing, or learning/memory, etc), though much remains to be explored experimentally”.
Anxiety on psychedelics
Nervousness and fear are protective strategies developed by our brains to keep us safe from predators and life-threatening situations. It prepares the motoric reaction to fight or flight. Although most of us don’t have to run from predators, nor see executors around the corner, similar emotional landscapes can shape up in daily life. They can provoke mental disturbing behaviors like self-criticism, extreme self-consciousness, short breathing, multiple thoughts passing at high speed… Being nervous, constantly, ubiquitously. In one word, anxiety.
Two relevant studies reported by TIME showed strong evidence of positive results in participants with anxiety and depression after taking part of a psychedelic research. About 60-80% of them reported a reduction of their symptoms sustained for over six months after one session with psilocybin (the molecule present in magic mushrooms). So, what is in the “flesh of gods” than can help people treat their anxiety?
The epicenter of anxiety lies in our ruminating minds. Meanwhile, the ruminating mind belongs to the default mode network or DMN. That place of our brain is active when we have no mental task to perform, consuming high amounts of energy and quite relevant in processes such as self-reflection, mental constructions like the ego, and moral reasoning (to learn more go to Pollan´s book chapter five).
The opportunity psilocybin brings to people treating their depression and anxiety is precisely to lower the volume of the DMN, while enhancing a fulfilling experience of the here-and-now. All this, without the mental limitations of the ego, repetitive harmful thought sequences, and stifling self-consciousness; additionally, psychedelics, in general, can trigger a higher degree of connectivity between various parts of the brain. More connections, more awareness, less worry.
In an episode of the Psychedelic Integration Podcast, Sinclair and John share their experience using psychedelics to therapeutically treat their anxiety. For them the key to transform anxiety, and its harmful thinking processes based on self-criticism and external worries, was to liberate themselves of else´s responsibilities and the self-allotted obligation to save the world´s problems.
Victoria Cubillos a psychotherapist and founder of Anowta, explains how people who have experienced positive effects in their anxiety treatment using psilocybin succeed only under rigorous accompaniment:
When people do it micro-dosing or on their own, they show an improvement but tend to relapse, feeling just like they did before.
It is important to start first with psychotherapy because the patient learns to relate and not fight his anxiety by: acquiring breathing skills, cognitive restructuring skills and emotional intelligence. When a patient uses these techniques and connects to his body during their entheogenic experience, it becomes easier for them to go into the depths of their unconscious and heal what needs to be healed. To learn what can be learned. And to live the mystical experience from an approach that allows him to leave a sustained imprint in the unconscious, in the conscious, and in the body.
Psychedelics serve the purpose to distance the user from his/her life and look at it from a broader higher perspective, where relevance and value become relative and harmful truths are deeply questioned or even dismantled. But no one should be expected to deal with the dismantling of their inner trues on their own. It is important to insist in the therapeutic use of the substances, and by that, I mean to have a therapist, professional, experienced, and trained to talk to, to accompany the process. And more importantly, guide the integration of the practice.
World changing jobs on psychedelics
The therapeutic use of psychedelics can be seen as a shortcut to achieve results that might otherwise take years to get to. However, in cases where mental health is weakened to an extend that the depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic syndrome really interferes with day-to-day life, or those cases where psychiatric medications seem to be the only way to recover social functions, the question is: Would a deep psychedelic dive into the unconscious help unveil and treat the source of fear or pain? Could that dive help the patient live a more authentic life without the medication?
And what about those who are not suffering of anxiety or depression. Should we wait to get there before diving into a therapeutic session?
We all face changing emotional landscapes throughout our life. Emotions are to the being what air is to the lungs. And here is when the story becomes personal, time to talk about my own experience.
I was only 14 years old when, after reading Jorge E. Gaitan's speech about the massacre in the banana plantations (Colombia, 1948), I decided my thing was to work for those events never be repeated. And if they were to be repeated, I would give voice to the silenced and make sure victims were repaired. To expose and transform the cruelty, the abuse of power and injustice became my inspiration. Years of studies, travels, and more studies landed me in the field. And I was there, working with the victims. Same region, walking through the banana plantations in 2011.
Having a change-the-world job is both: fascinating and scary. On one hand, it fills the day with tasks worth doing because in the end someone in need will be slightly better off. It is scary, precisely because the stakes are high, because we deliberately decide to engage our working force to create direct impact over people´s lives. And because in many cases, that includes having to deal with life and death situations. How can that not trigger anxiety?
One day I was in the office at the capital, safe. Two days later I get up at dusk to leave the communities behind, knowing there will be a heavy attack and I did not have the means to save nobody but myself. I could hear the bombs in the back while navigating downstream. No one got killed nor harmed that time. Only my naivety. But that brought up the biggest monster you face in social impact jobs: frustration and powerlessness, at the highest.
Psychedelics are not the medicine to cure frustration. Nor they are the source of world-changing, manifesting-all superpowers. But they do grant access to a higher perception or reality, a broad understanding of a gigantic network of beings and existences that work and co-exist simultaneously and perfectly, regardless of human intervention or will. In other words, they are a key reminder of a simple fact we keep on forgetting: we are tiny mini beings living a tiny mini experience in a macro inapprehensible Universe. Our timeline is as thin as our brain can grasp, and no computer is yet able to store all these timelines happening simultaneously through the existence of each individual being. And I say being, not only humans.
Psychedelics give you a look into an uncomfortable truth: no, you cannot change the world, you can only change your vision of the world. And that is, you can decide to expand it all much that your ego dissolves in its magnificence, to later go back find the track of what the purpose of your existence is and work accordingly. And the work is no other than to own your shit, love your shit, heal your shit, forgive your shit, and let go of your shit. Then, the world starts changing. It changes when we understand suffering and decide no to cause more of it, and when we can indeed feel compassion, for ourselves and for others. It changes, when loving and having an open heart is no longer a lingo of hippies, but the moral code of humanity.
The take aways
Considering the experience with psychedelics to treat anxiety or depression? Give it a try together with a therapist of your trust. Always mental and physical safety first. And make sure you have enough time for integration.
Psychedelics deserve to be treated with respect, and that starts with self-respect. It is important to be in connection to your body, be able to speak and accept different emotions that might emerge, lower down the expectations almost to the point where you have non and be clear on the fact that they are not oracles.
Inform you self and find what resonates best with your personal motivation. There are no comparable psychedelic experiences. They are all absolutely unique and individual.
Links by order in text
Pollan, M. (2018). How to change your mind the new science of psychedelics. Penguin Books.
Luisa Trujillo is a political scientist, researcher on mental health, writer, and educator currently working as Research Associate for the International Therapeutic Psilocybin Rescheduling Initiative (ITPRI). She moved to Switzerland at first to complete her MA studies, deciding to stay and tune her knowledge with the pressing needs of a very prolific and stable society with high rates of mental health disorders. Luisa is still committed to giving voice to the silenced, but now to those who suffer the consequences of high-productivity-oriented systems neglecting emotional wellbeing.