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Exploring the Potential of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Treating Anxiety


Exploring the Potential of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Treating Anxiety

Anxiety, often described as the "disease of the modern world," affects millions of people worldwide. It can manifest in various forms, from generalized anxiety disorder to specific phobias, and it impacts both the mind and body. Traditional treatments for anxiety include therapy and medications, but these methods don't always provide sustained relief. This blog will delve into the intriguing world of anxiety and psychedelics, exploring their potential as a novel approach to healing and recovery.


“The Age of Anxiety”


“I have anxiety” is a phrase therapists regularly hear from their clients. The implication is that anxiety is approached as a disease that needs to be cured. Yet anxiety, like all our emotions, is healthy and necessary: it signals a core human need - typically the need to feel safe, prepared and in control. Once we find a sustainable way to feel secure, our anxiety resolves naturally, analogous to the way fatigue and hunger dissipate upon resting and eating (Panskepp, 1998).


However, millions of people, from CEO’s, movie stars, housewives, children and the elderly, struggle with chronic, distressing anxiety in various forms, including generalized anxiety (excessive worry and rumination), panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, and OCD.


The reasons why we currently live in the “age of anxiety,” are complex, but typically involve an interaction between:

  • genetic sensitivities,

  • trauma,

  • stressful careers lacking purpose and autonomy,

  • financial strain,

  • poor work/life balance,

  • conflictual interpersonal relationships,

  • loneliness and chronic health problems (NIMH, 2004).

These conditions challenge our ability to find a lasting sense of safety and security in our lives.


Anxiety vs Stress: When to Seek Help


Short-term stress - a momentary burst of cortisol and adrenaline or ‘stress hormone’ - is beneficial: it energises and immunises the human body (Huberman, 2020). Without healthy, short-term stress, we wouldn’t get out of bed, prepare for meetings, study for an exam or take action towards meaningful life goals.


However, long-term stress, which reaches its apogee in the form of chronic anxiety, is an enervating physical, emotional and cognitive experience that makes it nearly impossible to function. Remaining in a perpetual state of sympathetic arousal (or ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response) accompanied by increased heart rate, rapid breathing, shaking, dizziness, nausea, irritable bowl, headaches and body aches can lead to exhaustion, burn-out and depression.


Psychologically, we may experience excessive worry, irrational fears, and a persistent sense of dread or unease.


When these symptoms begin to interfere with the quality of our relationships, work and recreation, it’s a good indication that we would benefit from professional treatment.

Traditional Anxiety Treatments


Therapy to Treat Anxiety


Traditional therapies for anxiety include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and talk therapy. These approaches aim to identify and modify thought patterns and behaviors contributing to anxiety. While effective for many, traditional therapy can be a long, arduous and expensive, with modest success rates of around 48% (Sanacora and Schatzberg, 2015).



Medications to Treat Anxiety


Pharmaceuticals like benzodiazepines and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed for anxiety. These medications can help relieve uncomfortable symptoms but may come with side effects, discontinuation symptoms and risk of dependence. Importantly, pharmaceuticals don’t provide insight and resolution around the underlying and perpetuating factors driving one’s chronic anxiety.


How Psychedelics Assist in Treating Anxiety


When used within controlled settings, psychedelics (organic and synthetic compounds that induce non-ordinary states of consciousness) have shown extraordinary promise in the treatment of anxiety, with success rates of 78% and beyond (Krystal and Charney, 2020).


By tempering the brain’s habitual mode of functioning, psychedelics kindle a globally connected brain state, leading to significant amounts of neuroplasticity in a remarkably short space of time - what may otherwise take months or years to achieve in traditional therapy. This allows us to disrupt rigid thought patterns, process underlying trauma and gain insight into creative, sustainable ways to meet our core human needs.


Connectogram - Psilocybin's effect on the brain and neuroplasticity

Ketamine: The Promising Dissociative


One promising compound is the dissociative anesthetic medicine, ketamine. By activating the glutamate system, ketamine (in sub-anesthetic doses) has been shown to have potent and rapid antidepressant and anxiolytic effects. Clinical trials have shown promising results in helping people resolve generalized anxiety, PTSD, social- and specific phobias, panic disorder and OCD, when paired with psychotherapy (Tully et al, 2022)


Psilocybin: The Enigmatic Fungus


Psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, has also garnered attention for its anxiolytic potential. Psilocybin can induce mystical-type experiences leading to profound shifts in consciousness which have shown to significantly reduce feelings of fear and dread. Recent studies have focused on psilocybin for the treatment of depression, terminal illness anxiety and addiction (Carhart Harris, 2016; Griffiths & Johnson et al., 2016)


The Magic Isn’t Only In the Medicine: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy


Current international best practices suggest that the astonishing benefits of psychedelic medicine may only be sustained when their use is grounded within a broader therapeutic framework. EQNMT’’s program involves thorough screening and preparation, a carefully and professionally curated psychedelic experience or journey in a natural setting, and rigorous follow-up therapy or integration, where insights from the journey are translated into habit change.


Since mindfulness-based practices have been shown to aid in the preparation, comfortable navigation and integration of the psychedelic journey, EQNMT introduces disciplines like:

  • meditation

  • breathwork, and

  • deliberate cold exposure

at key points within the therapeutic process (Payne & Chambers, 2021). Appreciating the relationship between our natural biological functions and our capacity to regulate emotion,


EQNMT also teaches evidence-based principles for:

  • quality sleep

  • healthy nutrition, and

  • exercise/movement (Huberman, 2021) .


CASE STUDY

Finding Safety in Stillness: Sarah’s Journey


Sarah, a 47 year old woman, participated in one of EQNMT’s programs as she had been struggling with debilitating generalized anxiety for most of her life. She’d undergone multiple courses of psychotherapy and was on chronic medication. While providing some symptom relief, these interventions failed to fully resolve her anxiety. Her discomfort would momentarily subside whenever she was distracted by work, her phone, alcohol, socializing or overplanning for the future. In quiet, undistracted spaces, she would feel a looming sense of dread, which would sometimes trigger palpitations and shortness of breath.


During her psychedelic journey, Sarah recovered an early memory:


One Sunday afternoon when she was 8 years old, she was alone at home. There were dark storm clouds in the sky and the house was dead quiet. The thought of going to school on Monday morning terrified her, as a group of girls in her grade had recently begun bullying her. Alone in her quiet house with nothing to distract her from thinking about tomorrow, she started to cry, as her fear and panic swelled
Then, she found herself in an empty hall, with bare walls, no doors and a deafening silence. At first she felt afraid, but her journey preparation had trained her to be curious and reframe discomfort in the journey as an invitation towards growth and insight. As she ventured into the hall, she felt a profound sense of peace and stillness. She knew the hall symbolized her mind, and that the journey was showing her that she needn’t endlessly distract herself from her thoughts. Indeed, her mind, when still, can be a place of solace.

Sarah’s Integration: From Insight to Action


During her integration therapy, Sara realized that since that Sunday at home alone, she began to associate feelings of dread with quiet spaces. In an effort to feel safe, she avoided stillness all her life through distraction. She realized this wasn’t a sustainable strategy for feeling secure, since she can’t escape her mind, try as she may. Indeed, her efforts to do so eroded her trust in her capacity to cope, increasing her anxiety in the long run.


Sarah integrated this new awareness by practicing the art of non-distraction. Mindfulness meditation, breathwork and yoga, disciplines she had previously found intolerable, allowed her to continuously expose herself to stillness and nurture this new relationship to her mind. Realising that ‘her safe space is inside her,’ she no longer struggles with excessive worry, palpitations and shortness of breath, and is able to enjoy deeper presence and connection with herself and her loved ones.


Sarah’s recovery exemplifies a truism of all psychological healing:

If we stare into the abyss for long enough, we eventually see the light.


Find out more about our evidence-based, psychologist-led psychedelic-assisted therapy programs by visiting our website.


Have any comments to share? Email us at inquire@eqnmt.co

 

NOTE: While EQNMT offers psychedelic-assisted therapy and wellness programs, we firmly believe in a holistic approach to wellbeing. As such, we acknowledge that psychedelic-assisted therapy might not be useful to or desired by everyone, and encourage healthcare seekers to consult trusted professionals before starting any new form of treatment. Similarly, we advocate for the safe, legal use of psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, guided and administered by qualified professionals.

 

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References


Carhart Harris, R and Bolstridge, M (2018) Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmocology. 235(2):399-408.


Griffiths, R and Johnson, M et al (2016): Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 30(12): 1181–1197.


Huberman, Andrew (2020). Master Stress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntfcfJ28eiU


Huberman, A (2021): The Science of Emotions and Relationships: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcuMLQVAgEg


Krystal JH, Charney DS, Duman RS (2020. A New Rapid-Acting Antidepressant. Cell. 181: 7.


Panskepp, Jaak (1998) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Emotions in Animals and Humans. 1st Ed. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.


Payne and Chambers (2021). Combining psychedelic and mindfulness interventions: synergies to inform clinical practice. ACS Pharmacology and Translational Science. 4(2): 416–423.


Sanacora, G and Schatzberg, A (2015). Ketamine: promising path or false prophecy in the development of novel therapeutics for mood disorders? Neuropsychopharmacology. 40(2): 259–267


Tully, J, Dahlen, A, Haggerty, CJ, Schioth, H, Brooks, S (2022). Ketamine treatment for refractory anxiety: A systematic review. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 88:4412–4426.

 

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