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What is Psychedelics-Assisted Therapy?

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

Psychedelic therapy is a psychotherapy technique that involves psychedelic drugs to aid in the therapeutic process. Psychedelic drugs and hallucinogenic substances have been used in holistic medicine by various cultures for thousands of years.

In the United States, psychedelic research flourished during the 1950s and 1960s before most substances were made illegal in the U.S. Although many substances, including LSD and MDMA, are still illegal in the U.S., research on the use of psychedelics has demonstrated their potential to treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When used in a safe and controlled clinical setting, psychedelics can produce long-lasting psychological benefits and behavioral changes. How does psychedelic therapy work as a breakthrough therapy, and what do you need to know about novel psychopharmacological therapies?

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How does psychedelic therapy work?

Contrary to what its name may imply, psychedelic therapy does not involve taking psychedelic substances and hoping for a mystical experience. Because psychedelic substances are dangerous and can never truly predict how your mind and body may react to the psychedelic experience, this type of therapy is performed in a safe and controlled environment.

In clinical trials, patients undergo psychedelic therapy in two to three sessions, with each therapy session lasting approximately eight hours. However, therapy sessions are not performed back to back, and most therapists recommend one session per month.

Clinical trials generally begin with participants building trust with their therapist prior to taking any psychedelic substances. Before any psychedelic studies begin, study applicants must complete a medical history questionnaire and provide information regarding the study drug.

After taking a controlled dosage of the study drug, psychedelic therapy is relatively simple. In some cases, participants are given eye shades or headphones while “tripping,” while therapists support them in the experience.

What psychedelic substances are used?

Most classic psychedelics have been used in psychedelic research to treat mental health issues. Psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’) is one of the most common substances used in psychedelic studies. Many clinical trials have also studied other well-known psychedelics, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), MDMA (‘ecstasy’/’molly’), DMT (n-dimethyltryptamine), and ketamine.

A lesser-known psychedelic substance, ayahuasca, is also gaining popularity in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders in clinical settings in Latin America. Ayahuasca is a traditional Native American drink made from the Banisteriopsis caapi plant and used in indigenous cultures for thousands of years.

What mental health conditions does psychedelic therapy treat?

In safe and controlled environments, psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs has been shown to produce positive and long-lasting behavioral changes in individuals with a wide variety of mental health issues. Psychedelic treatments have been studied to treat PTSD, alcohol use disorder (alcohol dependence), social anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and anxiety related to terminal illnesses, including life-threatening cancer.

In a 2016 study, Griffiths et al. found that the therapeutic effects of psilocybin led to significant decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety in individuals with terminal illnesses. In a systematic review, researchers demonstrated the efficacy of lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction and alcohol dependence.

Other studies conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) in treating people who have PTSD. In recent years, psychotherapy research has also linked psychedelic therapy to the treatment of other mental health issues, such as drug addiction, drug abuse, and other substance use disorders.

What is micro-dosing?

Micro-dosing involves ingesting a small dose of a psychedelic substance, most often psilocybin, MDMA, or LSD. Micro-doses, which are usually about one-tenth of a standard dose, help therapists and clinicians control the drug’s mechanism of action.

During psychedelic therapy, therapists use micro-dosing to trigger a substance’s therapeutic effects, such as improved mood or increased energy, without the disruptive effects experienced at higher doses, such as hallucinations.

Where can you go for psychedelics-assisted therapy?

Unfortunately, you can’t just go to your nearest clinic for psychotherapy treatment with psychedelics. For the most part, most of the substances used in psychedelics-assisted therapy are not yet decriminalized, and psychedelic-assisted therapy has not received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Psychedelic studies and neuroscience research continue to show the efficacy of novel psychopharmacological therapies in treating psychiatric disorders. In the absence of FDA approval, the best way to try psychedelic-assisted therapy is to join a clinical trial or pilot study.

With that said, other treatment options are available to treat mental health conditions. Studies have consistently demonstrated the efficacy of other psychotherapy methods, such as psychoanalysis and medications, to treat a wide range of mental health conditions, including traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and social anxiety.

To learn more about your treatment options, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. Whether you’re interested in cognitive-behavioral therapy or family therapy, we’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the licensed psychologists on the WithTherapy platform will help you find the psychological support you need to take control of your mental health and move forward.

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