For decades we’ve all been warned about the perils of taking psychedelic drugs. So psychedelics certainly couldn’t provide any positive health benefits, right? Wrong. Recent research is proving just the opposite — especially in the area of mental health. Right now progress is being made on several medications for treating anxiety and depression, and these drugs are based on the chemicals in psychedelics.
Psychedelic drugs are still illegal, so if you are affected by anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, you don’t want to take that route in looking for treatment. What you may want to try, though, is one of a few techniques that safely and legally mimic some of the effects of a psychedelic trip.
- Psychedelics Can Lessen Anxiety and Depression
- Taking a Psychedelic Trip Without Taking Psychedelics
Psychedelics Can Lessen Anxiety and Depression
The standard treatment for anxiety and depression is prescription medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These drugs increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (the “happy hormone”) by blocking (inhibiting) serotonin reuptake — essentially forcing existing levels of serotonin to remain in the brain for longer periods of time.
While SSRIs work for some people, they’re far from a miracle cure — they work for only about 20% of the people to who they are prescribed. And even when they do work, they’re often accompanied by side effects — often severe. Which brings us to the recent use of psychedelics to treat anxiety and depression.
What You Think You Know About Psychedelics Is All Wrong
Decades of myths and negative information from government agencies have lead to the common perception that psychedelics — drugs such as LSD that produce hallucinations — are dangerous and linked to mental illness. Growing up, that’s what most of us were lead to believe, and most of us simply accepted that outlook as indisputably true. In the last several years research has challenged that philosophy towards psychedelics.
Not only do psychedelics not cause mental health issues, these chemicals can actually lead to benefits in mental health. Researchers examining data on over 100,000 people in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that for many people the use of psychedelic drugs had a protective effect against mental health problems. The researchers discovered that both long-term and and short-term users of psilocybin (the active chemical in magic mushrooms, or psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD had lower rates of prescriptions for psychiatric medication prescriptions, mental health treatment, anxiety, and depression.
Another study came to the conclusion that even a lifetime of psychedelic use didn’t result in any link between mental health issues and the drug use. To the contrary, the researchers concluded that the use of psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD lowered the risk anxiety and depressive disorders.
How Psychedelics Lessen Anxiety and Depression
Psychedelics are drugs that cause hallucinations and may expansion of consciousness. It’s clear that psychedelics do lessen anxiety and depression, but it’s not entirely clear how they do that. Still, there are some theories on what’s going on with psychedelics and emotional well-being.
Psychedelics Increase Spirituality
Research has looked into how LSD and psilocybin — the chemical that produces the psychedelic effects of psychedelic mushrooms — increases the level of spirituality of users, and simultaneously decreases anxiety and depression in those same users.
Roland Griffiths, of the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a 2018 study that used psilocybin to treat anxiety and depression the terminally ill and noticed that participants who had spiritual or mystical experiences while taking psilocybin were far more likely to have improved attitudes about self and life, and have lowered levels of anxiety and depression.
Griffiths summed up the study results by stating that though Western medicine doesn’t usually consider religious or spiritual experiences as having a role in treating illnesses, the study findings “suggest that these encounters often lead to less depression and anxiety and bring about improvements in mental health.”
One interesting aspect to the findings of increased spirituality leading to a reduction in anxiety and depression is that the increase in “oneness” or a connection to some divine force or principle that brought about higher levels of happiness and less stress weren’t dependent on any religious affiliations. Even people who had little or no connections to any particular religion experienced an increase in spirituality and a lessening of depressed feelings.
Psychedelics Increase Brain Plasticity
Brain scans of participants in a study that involved psychedelic drugs may provide one reason psychedelics decrease depression.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brains of people both while they were experiencing the effects of psychedelic drugs, and a day after taking the drugs, showed that psychedelics increased connectivity in the default mode network — a number of regions of the brain associated with self, or ego.
The results showed that the more the integrity, or connectivity, of this network increased — the greater the degree of synchronicity in which neurons in the different regions of this network fired — the greater the positive effects on a person’s level of depression.
The assumption here is that the psychedelics increased neuroplasticity. What is happening is a reset process — the default mode network is shocked and scrambled, so to speak, but then returns to a healthier state. This remodeling of parts of the brain is neuroplasticity.
Taking a Psychedelic Trip Without Taking Psychedelics
Psychedelics have been shown to benefit people suffering from anxiety or depression. But more research needs to be done. And psychedelics are still illegal — even for medicinal purposes. With that in mind, there are are safe, legal ways to get some of the mental health benefits of a psychedelic high without using psychedelic drugs.
Sensory Deprivation to Treat Anxiety and Depression
Sensory deprivation is the removal of input, or stimuli, to your senses. When your senses are deprived of input, your brain is deprived of input. So other parts of your brain set to work in an attempt to compensate for this unnatural state. For many people, this “filling the void” is manifested in the form of hallucinations.
In an extended period of sensory deprivation your brain waves change state, moving from fast frequency alpha and beta waves of a highly conscious state to the much slower frequency theta waves that normally occur during deep meditation or reduced consciousness. A person normally experiences theta brain waves for very short periods of time just before falling asleep and after waking up (once asleep the slowest frequency waves, delta, are experienced).
Placed in surroundings of sensory deprivation a person can experience the slow theta wave state for an extended period of time. When this occurs visualization increases, and vivid mental imagery is often experienced.
In the 1950s the physician and psychoanalyst John Lilly designed a float tank, or isolation tank, to practice and study sensory deprivation. This large tank is a soundproof container holding a foot of water highly concentrated with salt. When a person lies in the tank, the saltwater provides enough buoyancy to cause the person to float. Floating in the warm water, in complete darkness, and wearing earplugs, sensory deprivation is achieved.
The experience of floating for an hour in a float tank has been described by many as similar to a psychedelic trip — without the use of psychedelic drugs. And the mental health benefits have been found to be similar as well. Studies using this float therapy have demonstrated a reduction in anxiety and depression. Users have reported euphoria, spiritual insights, transcendental-like experiences, and an increase in overall well-being.
Float therapy has been likened to psychotherapy with psychedelics — psychedelics are used in therapy by some psychologists. If you want to experience sensory deprivation using a float tank at home, you’ll need to be prepared to shell out several thousands of dollars. Float tanks have reached such a level of popularity, though, that in any large city it’s easy to find a spa that has a commercial float tank available for one hour sessions.
Light and Sound Meditation to Treat Anxiety and Depression
The float tank mentioned above uses sensory deprivation to slow a user’s brain waves and for some, bring about hallucinations. Related to sensory deprivation is something called perceptual deprivation. Perceptual deprivation doesn’t completely remove, or deprive, the senses of all stimuli. Instead, it replaces normal sensory stimuli with a uniform, constant stimulus. As is the case with sensory deprivation, a brain undergoing perceptual deprivation can’t properly interpret the abnormal input, and will often “fill in the blanks” by creating vivid imagery and even hallucinations. This situation where the brain experiences unstructured, uniform stimulation and in response compensates by amplifying different areas of the brain is known as the Ganzfeld effect.
Ganzframes and the Ganzfeld Effect
The Ganzfeld effect is sometimes experienced by people in natural settings, as in the case of arctic explorers who have been known to hallucinate after prolonged staring at endless expanses of featureless, snow covered land. The Ganzfeld effect can also be artificially created through the use of a system designed for this purpose.
A Ganzfeld system consists of a small audio player, earbuds, and a special pair of glasses or goggles. The audio player generates sound pulses at specific frequencies, which the user hears while wearing the earbuds. Simultaneously the player sends out pulses of colored lights — synchronized to the audio pulses — that the user experiences while wearing the glasses goggles (referred to as Ganzframes).
A Ganzfeld system comes with a number of sessions — each session consisting of a combination of sound and light pulses calculated to alter the brain wave state of the user. A session moves the user’s brain waves from the fully conscious, fast beta state to the slower alpha state, and then to the slower still theta state.
In the theta state your brain activity slows to that of when you’re asleep, though you’ll still be awake. Here you’ll experience a floating sensation, and you may have flashes of creative visualizations and even hallucinations.
The Kasina DeepVision™ Bundle from MindPlace is an example of a complete Ganzfeld system as described above. The Kasina player has a colored LCD display with a list of dozens of sessions. You pick a session and the unit plays synchronized audio and light pulses. The system comes with both Ganzframe glasses and goggles, each featuring six colored LEDs per eye. If you choose to wear the glasses you’ll do so with your eyes closed. If you instead wear the goggles you can play the session with your eyes open or closed.
Holotropic Breathwork to Treat Anxiety and Depression
Breathwork is a phrase that encompasses a number of breathing practices where conscious control of breathing is performed with the intent to influence physical, emotional, and mental states. Holotropic breathwork is one particular type of breathwork. Holotropic breathwork has been used as a part of treatment for stress and anxiety disorders, as well as depression.
The unconventional practice was developed in the 1970s by psychiatrists Christina and Stanislav Grof as a therapeutic tool that would allow patients to reach altered states of consciousness without the use of psychedelic drugs. At the time, Stanislav Grof had been an advocate of the use of LSD in psychiatry. With the outlawing of LSD Grof researched various methods of altering consciousness, and felt that holotropic (for holistic) breathwork was the best approach to reach this goal.
A holotropic breathwork session involves a trained facilitator and the person to be treated. The participant is referred to the “breather” and the facilitator is called the “sitter.” The trained facilitator guides the session, encouraging the participant to increase the speed and depth of their breathing as the facilitator feels appropriate. By breathing rapidly and evenly an altered state is induced in the subject, and it is in this state that a subject may experience a deeper understanding of oneself.
A breathing session brings about hyperoxygenation — the blood, cells, and tissues receive an excess supply of oxygen. In this state a person can feel effects similar to those experienced when using LSD, and should receive similar mental health benefits such as a lessening of anxiety or depression..
Holotropic breathwork isn’t as practical as some other “trippy” techniques such as light and sound meditation because it’s difficult to practice alone — it’s supposed to be undertaken only with a certified instructor.
The traditional approach to treating anxiety and depression has been, and is, pharmaceuticals — prescription drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil. What isn’t often mentioned about such drugs is that the success rate is low, and side effects including nausea, trouble sleeping, weight gain, and sexual problems are common.
Anecdotal evidence as well as recent research shows that psychedelics such as psilocybin (magic, or psychedelic, mushrooms), LSD, and MDMA can have positive effects on people who suffer from anxiety or depression. Unfortunately, currently psychedelics are illegal and not available for use by people with mental health issues.
It is the hallucinations, or “trips”, that people experience when using psychedelics that bring about the positive changes to the mind that help users combat anxiety and depression. Fortunately there are ways other than psychedelics that people can try in order to bring about the same positive effects of psychedelics.
One of these methods is light and sound meditation. By subjecting oneself to perceptual deprivation a person can slow the frequency of their brain waves and experience a near-sleep state without actually sleeping. Using a Ganzfeld system such as the Kasina DeepVision™ Bundle from MindPlace allows a person to experience perceptual deprivation by listening to sound pulses synchronized with colored light pulses that are viewed with Ganzframe goggles. Participating in short sessions with a Ganzfeld system causes a person to reach a relaxed state where vivid imagery and even hallucinations are common. For many people the result is a lessening of anxiety and depression.