Can psychoactive substances help people manage symptoms linked to anxiety, trauma, and depression?
The annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) — held this year in San Francisco, CA — is home to much thought-provoking debate about which directions psychotherapy should next consider.
These institutions included the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute in California, the Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, and the Palo Alto University in California.
"Combined with psychotherapy, some psychedelic drugs like MDMA, psilocybin, and ayahuasca may improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder."
Symposium co-chair Cristina L. Magalhaes, Alliant International University Los Angeles, CA
"More research and discussion are needed to understand the possible benefits of these drugs, and psychologists can help navigate the clinical, ethical, and cultural issues related to their use," adds Magalhaes.
MDMA for social anxiety?
Many researchers see psychedelic drugs as unsafe, and they are banned or heavily regulated by governments across the world, but this might change in the future; scientists argue that such substances could be a useful add-on to psychotherapy.
Currently, a clinical trial is seeking prove that MDMA, or ecstasy, can help those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as co-chair Adam Snider, of the Alliant International University in Los Angeles, CA, also notes.
Moreover, a recent study — the findings of which were presented at the APA convention — has gathered some evidence that MDMA, in combination with psychotherapy, can treat social anxiety in adults with autism.
A total of 12 participants with autism who experienced moderate to severe social anxiety participated in that study. They agreed to take two treatments of pure MDMA, alongside their regular, ongoing therapy, and they reported long-term and significant improvement of symptoms.
"Social anxiety," explains study author Alicia Danforth, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, "is prevalent in autistic adults and few treatment options have been shown to be effective."
"The positive effects of using MDMA and therapy lasted months, or even years, for most of the research volunteers," she stresses.
'A larger role for spirituality' in therapy
Another study whose findings were presented at the symposium suggested that LSD, psilocybin (or magic mushrooms), and ayahuasca could help manage anxiety, depression, and some eating disorders.
Researcher Adele Lafrance, from Laurentian University, argues that psychedelic drugs can help with psychological symptoms partly by improving a person's sense of spirituality, and how they relate to their own emotions. This, she says, is what a study of 159 participants who took such drugs reported.
According to the study's findings, the use of psychoactive substances led to a heightened sense of spirituality, better emotional balance, and therefore a reduction of anxiety and depression, as well as disordered eating.
Lafrance says, "This study reinforces the need for the psychological field to consider a larger role for spirituality in the context of mainstream treatment because spiritual growth and a connection to something greater than the self can be fostered."
As for ayahuasca, another study discussed at the symposium suggested that the brew can support the management of depression, addiction, and trauma-related symptoms.
"We found," notes researcher Clancy Cavnar, from the Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos in Brazil, "that ayahuasca also fostered an increase in generosity, spiritual connection, and altruism."
Cancer, emotions, and psychedelic drugs
Psychedelic drugs could also bring comfort to people dealing with cancer, as they may reduce anxiety and psychological distress.
According to a study of 13 participants that Gabby Agin-Liebes — from Palo Alto University — led, psilocybin in addition to psychotherapy can help people deal with their fear of death and their distress with regard to loss.
"Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience and the psilocybin treatment helped facilitate a reconnection to life, greater mindfulness and presence, and gave them more confidence when faced with cancer recurrence," Agin-Liebes explains.
The debate regarding the usefulness and safety of psychoactive drugs is ongoing, but those who participated in the APA symposium agreed that there is a need for more studies examining the potential of such substances more closely.
In particular, they said, psychedelic drugs pose sensitive legal and ethical questions that should be properly addressed going forward.