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The Healing Potential of Psychedelic Medicines: Promising Studies on Stress Disorder, Depression and Addiction

Feb 26, 2021 09:30AM ● By Linda Sechrist
Psychedelic mushrooms containing psilocybin for mental health healing


For more than 30 years, intersections of the human and natural world—our plates, farms and gardens—have been of interest to author Michael Pollan, who recently added the mind as another significant association in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

Pollan’s interest was sparked by two articles. The first, a New York Times story, “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again,” details how researchers from Johns Hopkins, the University of Arizona, Harvard, New York University (NYU), the University of California/Los Angeles and other institutions had been giving doses of psilocybin—the psychoactive compound in certain mushrooms—to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death. The second, a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology by Johns Hopkins researchers, was entitled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” Pollan turned his journalistic skills to researching the potential of psychedelics to actually heal the mind and treat mental and behavioral disorders, and the book that resulted became a number one New York Times bestseller. 

Research Breaks New Ground

Much of the research for studying psychedelic medicine has been supported by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The 35-year-old Santa Cruz, California, nonprofit is currently backing research into psychoactive methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also referred to as ecstasy, which produces effects resembling stimulants and psychedelics, as well as a feeling of connectedness. It plans to publish the full results of phase three clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2022, the final stage before seeking U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval for its use as a prescription treatment.

MAPS founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin, Ph.D., who spent 30 years studying how psychedelics might help heal trauma and mental illness, was trained and mentored by Stanislav Grof, M.D. A renowned psychiatrist with more than 60 years of experience researching non-ordinary states of consciousness, Grof proposes that psychedelics are to the study of the mind what microscopes are to biology and the telescope is to astronomy. When used wisely, he suggests, they can heal, inspire and perhaps save us.

Researchers have found that psychedelics reduce activity in the brain’s default mode network that creates our sense of self—the equivalent of our ego—filtering all incoming information according to personal needs and priorities. When activity is reduced in the default mode network, the ego shifts from the foreground to the background, allowing us to see that we’re part of a larger field of awareness. This can be among an individual’s most important experiences, allowing for feelings of connectedness, altruism and acceptance of death.

Psychedelics as Treatment

Since 2010, in addition to treating PTSD, MDMA has shown positive results for depression, social anxiety in autistic adults and anxiety associated with a life-threatening illness. Johns Hopkins and NYU research has demonstrated how psilocybin can help with treatment-resistant depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and addiction. Both MDMA and psilocybin have been studied as adjuncts or catalysts to psychotherapy rather than as standalone treatments.

Jennifer Phelps, M.D., who teaches for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, in Washington, D.C., and practices family and integrative medicine in Georgetown, Connecticut, says that psilocybin can transform a terminally ill individual’s quality of life for the remainder of their time. “This compassionate use can presently only be prescribed by a physician with the required license issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Presently, LSD, MDMA and psilocybin can only be prescribed for research,” she says.

Charley Wininger, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist, authored Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA after experiencing its positive effects on his marriage and psyche. “For those who experiment responsibly, psychedelics can open their lives up to spiritual growth and transformation. It’s a way to learn about how connected we are to each other, to the natural world and to the world at large. When you experience this level of connection, you and your worldview are transformed,” he says.

“MDMA helped me with the aging process. I keep growing and exploring consciousness in an unconventional way,” he adds, enthusing that psychedelics can be a unique, life-enhancing opportunity for healthy people across their entire adult lifespan.

Wininger explains that MDMA floods the body with serotonin and oxytocin, creating a sense of safety and well-being. “It’s best to do it with a trained psychotherapist or sitter, so that if any trauma surfaces, it can be relieved with a sense of safety. While individuals report that their relationship to trauma is altered permanently, integration groups give them opportunities to share and anchor their experiences.” 

Getting Informed

Daniel Shankin, program director of the wellness organization Tam Integration, Align and Flow, in Fairfax, California, offers mindfulness-based coaching and mentorships to integrate psychedelics with life, education and a related career. “Having a guide, preparation coach or therapist is good,” he says. “For the transformation to be lasting, preparation work is needed. Answering questions such as—Why are you here? What are your expectations? And what makes you feel safe and comfortable?—helps to build rapport with a guide that can help you form a simple, powerful intention beforehand.

“Personal growth work is invaluable to psychonauts,” says Shankin, who offers podcast interviews, as well as replays of a 2019 Psilocybin Summit in which notable speakers explore the facets of psilocybin mushrooms and methods for creating ceremony and holding a safe space. Also discussed are traditional and indigenous use, as well as efforts to change public policy so that individuals can legally have access to psychedelic medicine.

The Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at the California Institute of Integral Studies also educates the public about psychedelic medicines and trains psychotherapists to work in the expanding field of psychedelic studies. Its online programs inform the general public via podcasts about conscious medicine and the future of psychedelic-assisted therapy, which appears promising in light of the recent decriminalization of psilocybin in Oakland, Denver and Washington, D.C.

Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings.