By Lauren Williamson
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From Woodstock staple to veritable wonder drug for mental wellbeing – psychedelics have experienced vacillating standing in society.
“Psychedelics especially LSD, universally have a pretty bad rap, however, this is slowly changing,” says Canadian-based counsellor Paul Jozef. “Where once these substances were almost universally stigmatised, they are starting to be recognised by the general public as medicines rather than recreational drugs for dropouts. This has really opened up the conversation to focus on the mental health benefits and have allowed people to come out of the psychedelic closet.”
This recent rebrand from threatening to therapeutic has been driven by reputable research and credible experts backing the cause, but these substances have been part of human healing for centuries. While some use psychedelics to seek spiritual awakening, others are overcoming years of crippling trauma through psychedelic-assisted therapy. Here’s what you need to know about psychedelics and their growing role in modern medicine.
So, what are psychedelics?
Psychedelics are substances that alter perception, mood, and processes of the mind. These substances can be made in laboratories, like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), or are found naturally occurring in plants, such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and mescaline (peyote). Psychedelics have been used throughout history to facilitate spiritual experiences and healing rituals, from Native Americans sipping peyote to Aztec shamans serving mushrooms. Others are just in it for the mind-bending, recreational ride. Psychedelic drugs are illegal in Australia and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) recently rejected an application seeking to have psilocybin and MDMA rescheduled as controlled medicines in Australia.
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What do psychedelics feel like?
Psychedelics can produce a powerful, transformative trip and each substance its own unique, subjective effect on the senses. Onset, intensity and duration depend on the psychedelic you’re dabbling in and the dose. Studies have shown that subjects experience increased wellbeing, happiness, closeness to others, openness, and trust One of the most common descriptions of the psychedelic experience is the sensation of ego-dissolution or ego-death – a reduction in the self-referential awareness that defines normal waking consciousness. This evaporation of the self is linked to a feeling of blissful, mystical, oneness with your surroundings. On the other end of the scale, it’s this concept that could be at a core phenomenological feature of psychosis and schizophrenia.
To that end, there are many factors that can influence the experience particularly the user’s set (mental expectation) and the setting (environment). While one person might have an incredible, void-exploring experience on psychedelics, another can have a truly terrifying time. However, Jozef – who’s been interested in the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy since entering the mental health field – says typical portrayals of “going crazy or hallucinating strange imagery” on the substances are a common misconception.
“They are very powerful substances and should always be used with caution and treated with respect as they can be potentially very harmful,” he explains. “However, when used carefully not only do they have the potential for healing, but they also have the potential for wellbeing.”
How do psychedelics work?
Researchers are still exploring the diverse ways different psychedelics work their magic on the human body, but studies suggest they primarily interact with the serotonergic network. This is the system that deals with serotonin – your key hormone for stabilising mood.
Research suggests that psychedelics initiate “a cascade of neurobiological changes” altering brain activity and structure. Brain imaging shows that the substances appear to diminish activity in the part of your noggin called the default mode network – a group of brain structures responsible for self-conscious and self-focused thought. It’s speculated that the suppression of activity in this area is what leads to the aforementioned ego-death. Studies suggest the brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens
Michael Pollan, renowned author of the book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, describes the process as rebooting your brain, dissolving the deep grooves of thought that lock in trauma. It’s these effects that have huge potential as a safe, non-addictive method for treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction and the fear surrounding a terminal diagnosis.
Psychedelics in medicine
After Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann became the first known person to synthesize, consume, and describe the effects of taking LSD in the 1950s, psychedelics began gaining attention for their potential to treat mental illnesses. These substances then segued from research labs to recreational use among the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, but political resistance pushed psychedelics back underground. The last couple of decades have seen renewed mainstream medical interest in the possibilities of psychedelics, driven by organisations like Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM) and Mind Medicine here in Australia.
One of the most compelling clinical trials to date showed MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to be effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in military personnel and first responders, many of whom don’t respond to treatments currently on the market. Research out of Johns Hopkins University in the US found psilocybin to be four times more effective than medicines traditionally prescribed to treat major depression. Jozef says psychedelics have the ability to expedite the therapeutic process when used correctly and on balance.
“What may take years of traditional ‘talk therapy’ can in some cases be reduced significantly,” he says. “Moreover, some issues are simply not able to be healed with traditional therapy. Issues such as PTSD or issues that originated in early childhood are generally very difficult to treat successfully due to the ‘blocked’ nature of the condition. However, with the therapeutic use of psychedelics, the anxiety, which once prevented a satisfactory therapeutic outcome, can be dramatically reduced or removed and healing can begin to take place.”
As a wellness modality, these substances have the potential to foster enlightenment in those who aren’t experiencing a mental illness.
“It is a shame that psychotherapy has traditionally been viewed as something one does when one wants to heal from depression or anxiety,” Jozef explains. “I view therapy as a place to grow and to learn about one’s self. With these substances, there is so much potential for growth and contentment.”
Psychedelic medicine is a promising space, but it’s not a panacea. These substances can be dangerous when not used correctly or abused.
“I’m not advocating people go out and use these substances to self-treat their illness,” Jozef says. “On the contrary, it’s the combination of these substances with psychotherapy and integration that can shift one’s world view and emotional well being.”