Psychedelics Show Promising Results At Treating PTSD

by Madison Hayes
Originally Published: 
Psychedelics Show Promising Results At Treating PTSD: Depressed girl sitting on ground
Scary Mommy and martin-dm/Getty

Trigger warning: child loss/PTSD

As someone who struggles with PTSD on a daily basis, I am always looking for methods of treatment to combat my symptoms other than those that leave me feeling more numb than a walking zombie. I’ve tried multiple medications, combinations of pills and supplements, but I’ve yet to find a good fit for me.

My diagnosis found me the moment my son died unexpectedly in our home from SIDS. I was the one to find him and initially try to resuscitate him, and those vivid memories have yet to find the exit door in my head.

I see him everywhere, and sometimes, I feel like if I could just look at that morning and those first few days from a different perspective, maybe the power my trauma holds over me could be reduced. Because the way I am living now, it feels like I’m re-living the morning he died over and over in my head. It’s like a part of me is still there, and I struggle to pull myself out of that state full of so much vivid imagery and into the present tense of my current reality.

The sad truth is, there are only a couple drugs approved by the FDA for treating PTSD. Because of this, doctors will sometimes use several medications in hopes of treating the disorder which can be helpful to some, potentially harmful to others. But with new groundbreaking studies and clinical trials making headway just recently, researchers are eager to get the word out about the promising benefits of treating PTSD with psychedelic therapy.

LSD, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, and even MDMA (though not technically a psychedelic, it is known for its psychedelic effects), although undeniably controversial, are now being considered as a possible treatment option combined with therapy.

Dating back to the ’50s, researchers have been fascinated by the composition of psychedelics, as well as their ability to provide relief to those who have mental illness. By the ’70s, this research was slowed in America, but picked back up again in the 2000s. In the past few years, however, it would seem the FDA is beginning to see psychedelics as a strong asset when treating mental illness, even agreeing to “breakthrough” therapy studies with psilocybin (mushrooms) and MDMA (molly or ecstasy).

Just recently, the FDA announced that 50 participants will now be able to obtain MDMA under a doctor’s care thanks to its Expanded Access program. MDMA is also known as the “rave drug,” and it belongs to the class of drugs known as empathogens, which causes euphoria, mindfulness, and connection.

MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) — an organization that had a hand in the process — confirmed that the FDA is allowing them to bring in patients who have complex PTSD for which other treatments have been ineffective. Now that MAPS has invested 34 years in MDMA and psychedelic psychotherapy, also having guided millions of people toward clinical studies, they are finally in their last stage of research and awaiting the FDA’s approval before the drug is released for prescription. They are guessing this could happen as soon as 2022.

“The resurgence of research into using drugs such as MDMA to catalyze psychotherapy is the most promising and exciting development I’ve seen in my psychiatric career,” Michael Mithoefer, medical director for MAPS Public Benefit Corporation, said in a press release. “Combining the powerful effects of pharmacology with the potential depth of psychotherapy is a compelling model for harnessing advances in neuroscience and psychopharmacology without ignoring the complexity, richness and innate capacity of the human psyche.”

In the past, I have dabbled in MDMA, LSD and magic mushrooms. And I always came out of those experiences feeling somewhat wiser about my current situations in life. Many people feel that psychedelics allow the user to look at events or challenges in their life from a fresh, raw, and different perspective, so it only makes sense that people also believe this stands true for the traumatic seasons of one’s life too.

In a 2020 study involving cancer patients with cancer-related psychiatric stress, nearly every participant attributed more positivity in their life following their psilocybin-assisted therapy. Some even went as far as to recall their experience as one of the “most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”

According to researchers from the University of Florida, this is partly due to the fact that the active ingredient in mushrooms actually regenerates brain cells. In the published study, it’s said that psilocybin carries properties that bind to unique receptors in the brain responsible for healing. It is also a “noaatropic” agent. In other words, it helps restore the part of the brain that is responsible for converting and identifying short-term and long-term memory — the hippocampus.

For people with PTSD, there is an immense struggle to forget the trauma, and these memories fail to fall into their designated place inside the brain. They don’t cycle the same as “normal memories,” and they become trapped inside of the hippocampus, causing individuals with PTSD to feel as if they are re-living it. Even if the trauma took place ten years ago, it doesn’t matter. PTSD makes it feel like it “just happened yesterday.”

But by allowing psilocybin to bind itself to this part of the brain, possibly healing it in the process, it allows the user to better decipher the trauma as a memory that belongs in long-term memory. As a result, the intensity of that trauma may feel less powerful and overwhelming. This, too, is true with other psychedelic substances like ayahuasca — an entheogenic brew made from a tropical vine found in the Amazon that’s well-known for it’s hallucinogenic properties.

“From the psychotherapeutic standpoint, ayahuasca is similar to exposure therapy,” Jessica L. Nielson, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California states. “Intention-setting is a common ritual in many ayahuasca practices. Users with traumatic histories have the opportunity to set their intentions to their traumas.”

Of course, there are dangers with using any psychedelic substance, but most of the risks come from fear of outside exposure (drugs being tampered with, cut with other substances, etc.). With more psychedelics being used in clinical trials, however, the “middle man” is eliminated and these substances can be manufactured and administered in a safer, clinical setting.

There is hope for PTSD. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and who knows? Maybe there will be some trippy clouds to gaze at along the way.

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