Post-traumatic stress order (PTSD) affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. (SOURCE).
For those that suffer with PTSD, the usual course of treatment involves pharmaceutical medication, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines, sleeping pills or antipsychotics, or a combination of these. However, these medications may lose their effectiveness over time.
Increasingly, illicit psychedelic or psychoactive drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinatory mushrooms), MDMA (aka “Molly” or “Ecstasy”) and cannabis sativa are being used by researchers in experiments to treat PTSD and other mental health concerns.
In a recent episode of the National Public Radio show, Fresh Air, host Terry Gross, interviewed psychologist, Dr. Julie Holland, one of the researchers involved in the experimental studies using psychedelics. These studies are sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which advocates for and develops psychedelics for use in prescription medication.
Holland is the author of a new book that in part discusses dealing with anxiety using psychedelic drugs and other coping mechanisms. The book is called, “Good Chemistry: The Science Of Connection, From Soul To Psychedelics.”
Editor’s note: This article summarizes the interview. The questions posed in the headlines below are the author’s and not those posed by Ms. Gross in the interview.)
Why Are Psychedelic Drugs Being Increasingly Used To Treat Anxiety?
According to Holland, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines, sleeping pills, and antipsychotics do not address the primary problem of mental health concerns. “They’re there to sort of, you know, seal up the cracks and act as Band-Aids,” she says in the interview.
Antidepressants have lacked innovation and advancement, says Holland. “People got on these medicines, and then they never got off. And a lot of people are taking antidepressants for decades. And they really weren’t designed to be used that way,” the psychiatrist adds.
In comparison, Holland claims psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy attempts to get to the root cause of the symptoms instead of “just sort of papering over the symptoms.”
Which Psychedelics Can Help PTSD And How Do They Help?
Holland says plant-based psychedelics have shown promise, especially psilocybin and ayahuasca, which is a hallucinogenic tea. These drugs, both of which are considered Schedule I illicit drugs by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Agency, help people explore their personal trauma through “debriefing” and coming to terms with their traumas. In addition, Holland says these psychedelics impart a feeling of “unity and connection, connectedness and oneness, that can be very powerful and, potentially, transformative.”
That interconnectedness, Holland says, is beneficial for both mind and body.
MDMA For Overcoming PTSD
A synthetic derivative of amphetamine, MDMA is particularly effective for psychotherapy, according to Holland. The party drug, which provides users with a sense of euphoria, Holland says, is perfectly designed to be a catalyst to allow psychotherapy to go deeper and be more efficient and more effective.
One of the rubs with traditional psychotherapy, Holland admits, is it can take years to experience positive outcomes. “There’s a lot of fits and starts. And people run away when things get too heavy.”
Holland claims MDMA acts similar to anesthesia during surgery, allowing people to be “More open and vulnerable and also feeling strong enough and calm enough that they can really explore their traumas.” This, she says, is incredibly helpful for the field of psychiatry. “We’ve never had anything like this before.”
One of the challenges with traditional psychotherapy in treating PTSD is getting patients to relax and open up and feel trusting of the therapist. MDMA overcomes these challenges.
On one hand, MDMA is a derivative of speed, thus one may assume that the drug can trigger even more anxiety. While it does it help patients be alert and encourage wanting to talk, it does so without contributing to anxiety. This is because, as Holland explains, MDMA increases serotonin.
“There is a feeling of very little anxiety and also a feeling of satiety, like you don’t really need anything, like you have everything you need,” Holland tells Gross.
MDMA Increases Levels Of Feel-Good Chemicals
In addition to increasing serotonin, MDMA also boosts other feel-good chemicals in the brain: dopamine and oxytocin. This action makes it much easier for people to explore traumas comfortably and trusti the therapist.
In increasing oxytocin, MDMA quiets a section of the brain called the amygdala. This is where fear is centered. In traditional psychotherapy, the amygdala lights up, so exploring traumatic events can be scary. Consequently, patients become afraid and close down.
Oxytocin is released with intense bonding experiences, be it a nursing mother and a newborn or during an orgasm between sexual partners.
“Everybody that I’ve spoken to who has had an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session has come away from it feeling like they have processed a good deal of their trauma – maybe not all of their trauma, but they certainly have a better sort of lay of the land of what it looks like,” Holland says in the interview.
CBD For PTSD
In an experiment that Holland and her colleagues ran, test subjects were given one of three doses: 100% CBD, 100% THC or a combination of the two.
Like THC, the compound in marijuana that makes users feel high, CBD (cannabidiol) comes from the cannabis sativa plant. CBD is the second most abundant chemical in the cannabis sativa plant. But unlike THC, CBD will not make you feel stoned.
CBD can be sourced from marijuana or industrial hemp. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, federal law legalized products derived from industrial hemp, which contains no more than 0.3% THC, an amount that will not produce a high.
However, Holland points out that it’s incorrect to say that CBD is non-psychoactive.
“It’s not intoxicating, but it is psychoactive in that it can help quite a bit with anxiety. It can help with insomnia. And it can help people sort of achieve, like, a calm focus,” she explains.
For people with PTSD, there’s a chronic sympathetic nervous system overdrive. Holland describes it like so:
“It’s like somebody’s sort of stuck in fight or flight. And because they’re stuck in fight or flight and they’re very anxious and they can’t sleep and it’s sort of kill or be killed, there’s a certain level of paranoia. You’re either sort of antagonizing people or you have a very short fuse. You’re fighting with people. Or you’re running away and you’re avoiding things. So that’s all fight or flight.”
How does CBD help?
CBD, along with THC, other psychedelics and MDMA, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body can repair itself.
PTSD and COVID-19
Suffering with PTSD or anxiety is bad enough. But throw in a pandemic and the sympathetic nervous system is more likely to act like a constant 5-alarm fire.
Holland says anxiety has overtaken depression as the most prominent mental health complaint. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was anxiety about contracting the virus. But what’s happened since then, she explains is that in addition to a pervading sense of anxiety and doom, people have been isolated and haven’t had any human touch for three months.
Consequently, this isolation makes people feel more disconnected and anxious, making it harder to sleep and more difficult to shut off the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system.
“The pharmaceutical industry is going to have a banner few years,” Holland predicts of the increasing amount of anxiety medication that will likely be prescribed.
This is why it’s more critical than ever for people with mental health challenges to have access to hemp-derived CBD.
Are Psychoactive Drugs Accepted By Mainstream Medical Associations?
Not surprisingly, using illicit drugs to treat psychiatric conditions is “still absolutely not very mainstream or widespread in its acceptance,” Holland says. However, she adds,
influential medical journals such as Nature, Lancet and Scientific American, and the American Journal of Psychiatry are increasingly publishing research on the subject.
Holland also points out that it’s important for PTSD and anxiety sufferers to stay on their medication; stopping abruptly can be very dangerous.
Furthermore, some of these experimental drugs will not work when used in combination with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. SSRI drugs block the action of MDMA , says Holland.
Psychoactive drugs should only be used under the supervision of your therapist.
What If Your Therapist Doesn’t Condone Using Illicit Drugs?
Holland says in the interview that there are “underground therapists” in densely populated urban areas that are working with MDMA and psilocybin. In informal settings, there are ayahuasca circles.
Rewiring the PTSD Brain
The drugs that the MAPS consortium has used in psychotherapy experiments facilitate positive changes in the brain called neuroplasticity. This process involves the rewiring of the brain. The drugs also help form new connections called synapses and new brain cells.
Holland says that antidepressant drugs don’t produce these beneficial changes in the brain. Even with good therapy, she says, it can take several years to experience behavioral changes. “But to see them after one session is really remarkable [because of psychoactive drugs],” she adds.
This quick behavioral change, host Gross suggests, would allow someone to see a traumatic experience in a different way; to comprehend it or to distance yourself from it in a way that you were unable to before.
You can hear the entire interview on National Public Radio here.