Here’s How Psilocybin Therapy Is Changing The Way People Treat Mental Health Issues

Here’s How Psilocybin Therapy Is Changing The Way People Treat Mental Health Issues

As the medical community progresses, so, too, does the intrigue surrounding psilocybin therapy. That’s because research on psychedelics is changing the way that we view mental health treatment.

The 1990s saw the advent of a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These included drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft). Psychiatric drugs like these, as well as talk therapy, have been the standard forms of mental health treatment for decades. The drugs, in particular, have soared in use. In fact, about 13 percent of adults in the United States are now taking antidepressants.

Rather than needing to take a drug with a host of side effects every day — or attend therapy every week for years — researchers are discovering that one or two sessions with psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) can be an effective alternative. Pair that with psychotherapy (known as psilocybin therapy), and the drug’s effects can help keep mental health conditions in remission for months.

It will be useful to examine, in detail, the ways in which psilocybin therapy differs from conventional mental health treatments. This will help to illuminate why this new therapy is being seen as revolutionary. We will then turn to the various conditions that psilocybin therapy can treat — or may potentially be effective at treating.

Psilocybin Therapy Vs. Conventional Mental Health Treatments

The Power Of One Or Two Sessions With Psilocybin

As briefly mentioned, psilocybin therapy is effective after just one or two sessions with the psychedelic compound psilocybin. The duration of the therapeutic session is 6-8 hours, so this requires pretty much the whole day.

Along with the experiences with psilocybin, this form of therapy involves psychotherapy as well. Therapists will be present during a psilocybin session. However, they are mostly there to offer emotional support should a person need it. The actual talking therapy takes place before and after the session.

When using psilocybin therapy in clinical trials for the treatment of depression, participants typically receive two doses of psilocybin. These are separated by 1-3 weeks, with preparatory meetings with a therapist before the journey and integration sessions after.

These preparatory meetings offer a chance to discuss the exploration objective during a journey. Meanwhile, the integration sessions are an opportunity to discuss the experience. This includes telling the therapist what this means to you, and how you can grow from the insights and lessons.

All in all, psilocybin therapy can be completed in a matter of weeks. In contrast, if you are taking antidepressants, you need to take them every day, with many people taking them for years, decades, or even their whole life. It is also common for people to make weekly visits to a therapist in order to work on issues like depression, anxiety, and trauma. They may do so for many years.

However, many people find that just one or two sessions with psilocybin, plus psychological support, can provide therapeutic benefits. This tends to be more effective than using either psychiatric medications or psychotherapy.

Psilocybin Therapy’s Effectiveness Depends On The Experience

Studies have continued to reveal that the quality of the psilocybin experience is what drives its therapeutic benefits. Researchers have linked these benefits to psilocybin’s ability to induce mystical experiences, increase connection to one’s emotions, and encourage emotional breakthroughs. Psychedelics may also alleviate mental health issues by relaxing or reconfiguring negative and limiting beliefs that people have about themselves.

Researchers are asking whether the trip is necessary to help people with depression. There are suggestions that psilocybin, minus the trip, could still benefit depressed patients in terms of enhancing plasticity in the brain. The upside of this kind of treatment would be that you don’t have to commit to a psychedelic experience, which runs the risk of causing distress in both the short and long term.

Nonetheless, some psychedelic researchers doubt that a trip-free psychedelic is as effective as one that induces meaningful, insightful, and spiritual experiences.

How Psilocybin Differs From Antidepressants

As it stands, many researchers, study participants, and regular users of psilocybin find that it is the experience itself that is transformative and healing. This is different from antidepressants, which appear to combat depression through emotional blunting. SSRIs blunt negative emotions, which can be helpful; but they blunt positive emotions too. Psilocybin, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: it seems to help people confront difficult emotions and generally experience their emotions more fully.

While talking therapy is centered more on experiences, it is often not the case that a client will have one or two sessions with a therapist that leads to a drastic change in their mindset, attitudes, and well-being. Psychotherapy can be incredibly transformative, of course, but such changes typically require building a therapeutic relationship with a therapist over weeks, months, or years. In contrast to psychotherapy alone, many people who have had a profound experience with psilocybin say it was like receiving years of therapy in a matter of hours.

Psilocybin Therapy Has Fewer Side Effects

Psychedelics do have some standard and potential side effects. These include changes like pupil dilation, increased heart rate and blood pressure, sedation or stimulation, and nausea. However, the side effects are limited to the experience itself. When the experience is over, you can enjoy a range of psychological benefits, without any side effects at all.

Psychiatric medications, however, tend to carry more side effects and ones that patients may find quite unpleasant. For SSRI antidepressants, for example, common side effects include the following.

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Sexual problems such as low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, or ejaculation problems

Of course, psychiatric medications don’t require that you have an intense psychedelic experience, which can include moments of fear, anxiety, confusion, and being overwhelmed. A so-called “bad trip” can also be extremely distressing.

Nonetheless, many participants in psilocybin therapy studies have been on psychiatric medication for years and consider a potentially challenging experience worth the rewards. In addition, the most common adverse effects seen in psychedelic therapy are transient anxiety, short-lived headaches, and nausea. Compared to experiencing the side effects of antidepressants on a regular basis, some potential short-lived discomfort may seem preferable.

The Psychotherapeutic Aspect Of Psilocybin Therapy

Psilocybin therapy will typically involve far fewer sessions with a psychotherapist than would occur in normal psychotherapy. Another important difference between the two is that therapy sessions in the former are focused on the psychedelic experience.

Of course, other factors relevant to the individual may be discussed in relation to the psychedelic experience. These include things like their childhood, life history, and patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. But the fact that psychedelic experiences are the focus of the sessions makes them different from normal psychotherapy sessions. In the latter, particular experiences with altered states are unlikely to be the main focus. The exception would be if you seek out a therapist — such as a transpersonal therapist, who specializes in spiritual experiences — to specifically discuss experiences you have had with psychedelics.

Psilocybin Therapy Can Treat A Range Of Mental Health Issues

Research on psilocybin therapy indicates that it can treat various mental health conditions. Let’s take a look at the results of some of the most promising studies.

Psilocybin And Depression

Psilocybin therapy is effective in the treatment of major depression and treatment-resistant depression. The latter is a form of depression that does not respond well to conventional forms of treatment — like antidepressants and therapy.

Psilocybin And End-Of-Life Anxiety

It is common for patients with a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, to experience end-of-life anxiety. This is anxiety and fear when nearing death. However, psilocybin therapy has shown to be highly effective in alleviating this form of anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. At a six-month follow-up, these improvements were sustained.

In 2020, the Canadian government allowed terminally ill patients to use psychedelic mushrooms as part of psilocybin therapy to ease their anxiety and depression.

Psilocybin And PTSD

A team at the Medical University of South Carolina has reported on clinical trials showing that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers who use psilocybin as part of their therapy showed greater clinical improvements than patients who did not receive the drug.

Psilocybin And Anorexia

Anorexia is very often a hard-to-treat condition. It is also the most deadly mental illness. It carries four times the death risk from major depression. When anorexia is severe, a patient’s weight can be so low that their life is at risk. One in five patients also attempts suicide. Treating anorexia usually includes talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as well as supervised weight gain.

But now researchers are considering psilocybin therapy as a potential treatment for eating disorders like anorexia. Imperial College London’s Psychedelic Research Centre, for instance, has an upcoming trial on the effects of psilocybin therapy on anorexia.

Fewer than half of anorexia patients make a full recovery, so a better treatment is necessary. Many researchers believe that psilocybin therapy will help anorexia patients — just like patients with other conditions — achieve substantial improvements. One study has already found that ayahuasca ceremonies can improve eating disorder symptoms. There are hopes that psilocybin therapy will also prove effective. If so, this new treatment could potentially save lives.

Combining all these considerations, psilocybin therapy stands out as a unique and promising way to treat mental health issues. When legalized for clinical use, the appropriate shrooms dosage can help alleviate distress for people finding it difficult to treat through conventional methods.

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Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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