What is Psychedelic Therapy?

Psychedelic therapy, also known as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, or PAP, refers to a therapeutic approach that incorporates the controlled use of psychedelic substances to assist in the treatment of various mental health conditions. These substances typically include substances like psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms”), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and in some cases, substances like MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy).

The therapeutic process typically involves a carefully planned and supervised session where the individual takes a measured dose of the psychedelic substance in a supportive and controlled environment, often referred to as a “set and setting.” The “set” refers to the individual’s mindset and psychological preparation, while the “setting” encompasses the physical and social environment in which the therapy takes place.

Scientists have produced a range of evidence verifying and indicating the therapeutic potential of psychedelic therapy to particularly treat addiction, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, although it’s often combined with other treatments.

There is currently a renewed interest and investment into the research of psychedelic therapy with the goal to increase the success of traditional treatments.

It’s important to note that psychedelic therapy is still a relatively new and evolving field of research. The substances used are classified as Schedule I drugs in many countries, which means they are illegal and have a high potential for abuse. However, some have allowed exceptions for research and clinical trials.

How Can Psychedelic Therapy Treat Mental Health?

It is typical that traditional therapies for mental health conditions can often take several weeks to have an impact, whereas research has found psychedelic therapy to work almost immediately, often with a single dose.

Psychedelic therapy can potentially treat mental health conditions through several mechanisms and therapeutic processes. It’s important to understand that the field is still in its early stages of research, and much remains to be learned about the precise mechanisms of action. However, some hypothesised ways in which psychedelic drugs may have a therapeutic effect include:

  • Emotional experiences: During psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions, individuals may experience intense emotions and memories. This emotional release can create opportunities for individuals to process past traumas and unresolved issues, leading to emotional healing and growth.
  • Psychedelic experiences: Psychedelic experiences can evoke profound feelings of meaning, spirituality, and transcendence. For some individuals, this can lead to a greater sense of purpose, a reassessment of values, and increased well-being.
  • Neurotransmitter changes: Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain which many medications for mental health act upon to alter an individual’s mood. This may facilitate new ways of thinking and processing emotions, potentially breaking negative thought patterns and fostering more adaptive behaviours.

It’s essential to emphasise that the therapeutic effects of psychedelic therapy are heavily influenced by the context and setting in which the therapy takes place, as well as the preparation and integration sessions that follow the psychedelic experience. The therapeutic benefits are not solely due to the substance itself but rather the combination of the substance with skilled therapeutic support and appropriate psychological preparation.

Types of Psychedelic Therapy and How They Work

Psychedelic therapy has various approaches, each using different psychedelic drugs and therapeutic techniques. Here are some of the common types of psychedelic therapy and how they work.

  • Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy: Psilocybin is the active compound found in “magic mushrooms.” Psilocybin-assisted therapy involves the controlled administration of psilocybin in a supportive therapeutic environment. Psilocybin interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain, leading to altered states of consciousness and profound psychological experiences. During therapy sessions, individuals are guided through their experiences by trained therapists to explore their emotions, thoughts, and insights.
  • Ayahuasca-Assisted Therapy: Ayahuasca is a brew made from plants containing the psychedelic compound DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine). Ayahuasca ceremonies have been used traditionally in certain cultures for healing and spiritual purposes. In therapeutic settings, individuals consume ayahuasca under the guidance of experienced facilitators, leading to introspective and potentially transformative experiences.
  • Ibogaine-Assisted Therapy: Ibogaine is derived from the African shrub Tabernanthe iboga. Ibogaine has a complex pharmacological profile, acting on various receptors in the brain. It is being explored for its potential in treating addiction, particularly opioid addiction, by interrupting drug cravings and providing introspective experiences.
  • LSD-Assisted Therapy: Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a synthetic psychedelic substance. Like psilocybin, LSD interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain, producing altered states of consciousness. During therapy sessions, individuals may explore deep-seated emotions, memories, and aspects of their psyche, with guidance from therapists.
  • Ketamine-Assisted Therapy: Ketamine is a dissociative aesthetic with psychedelic properties. Ketamine has a complex mechanism of action, affecting glutamate receptors and promoting the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Ketamine-assisted therapy involves controlled ketamine administration, often via intravenous infusion or intramuscular injection, to address depression and other mental health conditions.

Potential Therapeutic Effects of Psychedelic Therapy

Psychedelic therapy has shown promising potential for treating various mental health conditions. While research is ongoing, preliminary research has provided insights into the therapeutic effects of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and drug or alcohol addiction.

Psychedelic drugs for depression such as substances like psilocybin and LSD, have demonstrated the ability to produce profound and transformative experiences. These experiences may lead to increased emotional openness, self-awareness, and introspection, allowing individuals to explore and process underlying emotional issues.

In a 2021 study with 164 people who went through a psychedelic experience, many reported significant reductions in depression, anxiety and stress following the psychedelic therapy.

MDMA-assisted therapy has shown significant potential in the treatment of PTSD. The empathogenic effects of MDMA can facilitate trust and emotional connection with the therapist, leading to increased willingness to process traumatic memories. Whilst these psychedelic effects may help to ease the effects of trauma, current research has produced mixed results.

Everyone’s response to psychedelic drugs for mental health can vary, and the outcomes are influenced by factors such as the individual’s psychological state, therapeutic support, preparation, and integration. Moreover, psychedelic therapy is still a developing field, and more research is needed to establish its safety and efficacy fully.

It is crucial for this therapy to be conducted under the guidance of trained professionals in controlled and regulated settings to maximise its potential benefits while minimising potential risks.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: August 4, 2023

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.