Updated: Mar 1, 2020
Logan Cohen, Professional Therapist and Online Life Coach
Psychedelics used to be something that you would only hear spoken of in very “counterculture” and generally liberal social spaces where one could find plenty of “hippies” - like Grateful Dead concerts and the Burning Man festival. These days we are seeing psychedelics make their way into local politics in states like Colorado & California, where some areas have decriminalized their use altogether. This new wave of interest is happening because research studies are showing new promise in the potential use of psychedelics and mental health.
Between the recent decriminalization of “magic mushrooms” in California, the headlines about Ketamine to treat Depression and Ecstasy to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, we have been getting a LOT of questions about psychedelics and mental health, so it’s time to answer those questions clearly here.
First, a few things about me so you know who you are talking to. I was a young man with a bit of a “wild streak” and taking psychedelics while attending live music concerts was a part of that. I also grew up in a household with a Parent who struggled with addiction and followed in those same footsteps as a teenager.
I course corrected after a rough adolescence and was able to heal from my own addiction as a young Adult. As a professional, I dove into a passion for working with Families who had the same disease as my own Family growing up. I am now a practicing Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who studied with a side focus in Addiction Studies for this specific reason.
While completing my Addiction Studies program in graduate school, the psychedelics caught my attention. Well technically, they really caught my attention as a teenager but also later as a graduate student - in a different way.
I longed to make sense of my personal experiences with psychedelics and mental health as I was coming of age and experimenting. I knew that psychedelics are very different from most other substances in regards to how they work in the brain - there is far less firing in the reward centers - which directly impacts whether People “get addicted” - or NOT. This addictive element of "dopamine" is NOT in play when it comes to psychedelics and mental health.
I also knew that while they are POWERFUL, psychedelics are not the “demon inducing chemical” that has been pushed by The Powers That Be and legislation makers in Modern Society.
After a handful of personal experiences as a young and dumb adolescent, studying the research in graduate school, and providing therapeutic care to adolescents and adults going through mental health issues and/or significant life transitions at my group counseling practice, it is now time to “clear the air”. Let’s talk about the use of psychedelics for mental health.
Psychedelics and Mental Health: Fact #1
Brain Mapping & New Circuits - “Cognitive Flexibility”
The big draw to psychedelics is that they encourage the brain to make new connections. Psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT allow such new connections to be made VERY quickly and powerfully, while at the same time do not result in memory loss. After just one or two experiences with psychedelics, the user frequently remembers the experience and their unique MINDSET during the experience. Studies are showing this awareness that a unique mindset is POSSIBLE makes a BIG difference.
In cases where somebody has struggled with Anxiety symptoms, it is common to struggle with “thinking errors” that rehearse scripts of “self talk” that result in FURTHER focus on anxiety provoking ideas like, “Everyone is looking at you and thinks you are a JOKE.”
Other examples of this self talk might be getting stuck in “over-analysis paralysis” (perfectionism), or even “people pleasing” to avoid potential confrontation.
When our Body is elevated with Anxiety and the associated physical arousal, People have another battle going on in the Mind. After someone has only one or two experiences with psychedelics, it is common that People are able to remember that they are capable of involving COMPLETELY different circuits of the Brain to stimulate the Mind differently. As a result, it becomes easier to observe the problematic thinking patterns as separate from Self. When People are able to observe Self, Body, and Mind as separate entities, Folks are able to operate differently by integrating those observations.
Psychedelics and Mental Health: Fact #2
To tag along with what was outlined above regarding the use of psychedelics and mental health symptoms related to Anxiety - substances like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT allow the Brain to create neural circuits between its regions with MUCH more flexibility. While this is happening, it is common that the familiar “Ego” of the user becomes SIGNIFICANTLY disrupted while under the influence. We are not talking about “ego” in terms of “thinking too highly of Self” (like egomaniac).
Our Ego State is something different entirely. This is the state of mind that is a collection of defense mechanisms we learn at a young age to protect Self from fears/insecurities related to our immediate environment and relationships in Childhood. This was described over 100 years ago in the original history of talk therapy by Sigmund Freud. Everyone has at least a few defense mechanisms to protect our insecurities and there is nothing abnormal or pathological about that!
The part(s) that can get problematic are when those defense mechanisms do SUCH a good job of protecting True Self that the walls initially built for the purpose of defense become walls of self imprisonment.
Since psychedelics create a lot of disruption in the way our Brain is firing, that disruption can help us see where we rely too much on certain defense mechanisms and keep us in a “mental block” - unable to see the problem that we are participating in ourselves. This experience has been called “Ego Death” and when it comes to psychedelics and mental health, they have been shown to steadily increase the ability to see our own problematic behavior(s) and mindset(s).
This can be a very helpful tool in everyday Life. Daily events can be chaotic, scary, and even PAINFUL. At the same time, People are not always ready to see all of these pieces at one time. This is VERY different to engaging in traditional psychotherapy where the client has a LOT more control over the process and can unpack their own unconscious in a less anxiety provoking way. This brings us to the next point.
Psychedelics and Mental Health - Fact #3
Risk of Worsening Symptoms, even “psychosis”
There are many limitations that come from our Ego and its defense mechanisms when it comes to stunting personal growth. At the same time, our defense mechanisms keep us safe from our deepest fears and insecurities that we are SCARED and/or ASHAMED of for GOOD REASON(s). When it comes to psychedelics and mental health, there is also a very REAL risk that symptoms will WORSEN as those defense mechanisms are TORN away.
On the “lighter side”, it is common that People prone to Anxiety symptoms suffer from ACUTE “panic attacks” while under the influence. A psychedelic experience creates a degree of anxiety for users ANYWAYS and if you are already prone to elevated Anxiety, this often makes it WORSE.
You might have heard People describe having a “bad trip” and THIS is what they are talking about. A bad trip is nothing more than having a panic attack while under the influence of psychedelics. While a panic attack cannot hurt you physically, it is SCARY and just for a moment, imagine going through a panic attack while HALLUCINATING UNCONTROLLABLY ON PSYCHEDELICS - hearing, seeing, and feeling things that nobody else is...YEAH...SCARY!
With this said, the experience cannot physically hurt you. I have heard stories of People hurting THEMSELVES with self harming behaviors during psychedelic infused panic attacks, but that is the extent of it. Sometimes I am still known to go to a music venue for a live concert experience every now and again and when I do, I occasionally see People having a bad trip and am happy to teach their social group how to help their buddy out. In these cases, you just respond the same way you do with a panic attack, but with a little EXTRA assurance about the current reality combined with an invitation for physical grounding in that "reality check."
“Hey Man/Sister. Your name is [Jeff, Mike, Susan, whatever] and you are just having a bad trip. Nothing here is trying to hurt you. Here is a cold bottle of water. The coldness might feel weird at first, but I think you will like drinking it. Let’s sit down over here for a minute where it's a bit more calm and take a few deep breaths. There you go [insert name here]. You are doing GREAT! This probably feels scary, but there is nothing that will hurt you here. We got you.”
On the “heavier side”, People who are prone to “psychosis” - an experience where thoughts and emotions are SO impaired that People totally lose touch with external reality - can be made worse with psychedelics. This is typical of mental health issues like Schizophrenia, and even Anxiety or Depression if symptoms get bad enough.
Roughly 3 in 100 People will experience symptoms of psychosis at some point in their Life. The problem here is when there is a family history of Psychosis and a Person who is getting close to developing these symptoms on their own natural biological course has a psychedelic experience.