November 12, 2021

November 10, 2021

Can Psychedelics Break Through the Many Masks of Trauma?

War and trauma are no strangers. Since the 1960s, psychedelics like MDMA have assisted therapy in having a profound impact on helping veterans cope with PTSD.

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Veterans have put their own lives and well-being on the line for something bigger than who they are. They sacrifice for a cause, their country, people they love, and people they’ve never met. 

But the sacrifice goes beyond life or death. For those fortunate enough to return home, oftentimes the baggage of what they experience comes with them in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

What is PTSD?

Approximately 7% of the US population and 11-20 out of every 100 veterans will experience PTSD sometime in their lives.

In the past, PTSD has been known by many names, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II.

First identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape, or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.

Symptoms of PTSD in Veterans

PTSD can present itself in many ways. It’s most often characterized by recurring symptoms of depressive and negative thoughts and feelings (self-blame and isolation), hyperarousal (irritability, aggression, and elevated startle response), re-experiencing (intrusive upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares), and avoidance of distressing memories, feelings, thoughts, or external reminders of the event.

Currently, the avenues for veterans seeking help are slim. The available treatments approved by the FDA are pharmacological prescriptions like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, which have been increasingly proven to be ineffective or suboptimal for veterans suffering from PTSD. According to clinical research, these substances require at least 2 weeks of daily dosing with dose titrations to produce any detectable PTSD symptom improvements.

In analyses that compare pharmacotherapy to psychotherapy, trauma-focused psychotherapies resulted in greater and longer-lasting improvements than medications.

Cue psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD

Since research into psychedelic therapy began in the 1960s, and again in its resurgence, lawmakers, clinicians, veterans, and researchers have been strongly advocating for the controlled use of psychedelics for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Unable to wait for this treatment to become legal in the US and Canada, many veterans have turned to programs like VETS (Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions), that provide awareness, education, and funding to veterans seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies. 

Unfortunately, due to the fact psychedelic substances are still restricted as Scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act in the US and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada, these veterans often seek treatment elsewhere.

The good news is that the tides are turning. Since 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the FDA reached an agreement that facilitated the resumption of clinical research with classical psychedelics. Companies like MINDCURE are working diligently to drive research that supports the potential of psychedelics including MDMA and ibogaine in healing individuals from various indications, such as trauma and its effects.

How are Psychedelics Used to Treat Trauma?

In several clinical studies, psychedelics like MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD have been shown to increase feelings of “openness” in individuals during psychedelic therapy. Openness can refer to many things but is most often characterized in that it allows patients to broaden the way they feel, think, and interact. This feeling and its associated symptoms have been shown to be a therapeutic mechanism of change as it can enhance therapy’s effectiveness.

In modern research, subjects in a psilocybin trial facilitated by psychedelic researcher Roland Griffiths rated the experience positively as causing substantial insight into personal meaning and spiritual growth. Fourteen months later, the participants rated the experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, with 64% indicating that the experience increased well-being or life satisfaction.

It’s thanks to trials like Griffiths’ that doors in psychedelic studies are opening. As recently as May 2021, Texas Legislature approved a study that will look at using psilocybin as a treatment for veterans struggling with PTSD. 

For the sacrifices made, supporting the research into the healing process of our vets should be a priority.

Breakthroughs With MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD

Since 2000, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has also been used in clinical trials in combination with psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD.

MDMA is known to cause the release of serotonin and neurohormones oxytocin, prolactin, and cortisol. These chemicals have been known to increase prosocial feelings and behaviors. From this, researchers have concluded that “This pharmacology might augment exposure-based therapy by temporarily reducing avoidance, allowing patients to tolerate feelings associated with revisiting the trauma memory and fully engage in the exposure.”

In one randomized, double-blind, dose-response, phase 2 trial, funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), active doses (75 mg and 125 mg) of MDMA with adjunctive psychotherapy in a controlled setting were effective and well-tolerated in reducing PTSD symptoms in veterans and first responders who did not previously respond to currently available treatments.

When combined with psychotherapy, MDMA has shown significant advantages over the existing medications normally used as first-line PTSD treatments in terms of safety (i.e., side effects), efficacy, and length of remission. And with that, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy continues to demonstrate its potential to favorably impact the lives of thousands who suffer from PTSD worldwide. And hope doesn’t end there.

Healing Trauma With Psychedelics

Of course, veterans are not the only individuals impacted by trauma. PTSD can impact anyone. The American Psychiatric Association says one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely to be impacted than men and US Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians also experience disproportionately higher rates of PTSD than white Americans.

Today’s clinical trials using psychedelic-assisted therapy have demonstrated profound preliminary data for psychedelic substances as a treatment for not only PTSD but also anxiety and depression, existential crises in end-of-life care, sexual trauma, alcohol dependence, tobacco addiction, major depression, and other treatment-resistant disorders. Trauma is not an isolated issue but leads to a litany of side effects that camouflage themselves into everyday life. Among various types of trauma, challenging sexual experiences, for one, can influence relationships, mood, overall quality of life, and even decreases in sexual desire

The potential of MDMA to heal individuals with PTSD can lead to our discovery of its applications in treating other indications. The Desire Project focuses on female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder to attempt to pinpoint the root issues of lack of sexual desire in women and develop solutions using pharmaceutical MDMA and psychotherapy. It’s crucial that we continue to fund, research, and advocate for psychedelic-assisted therapy in helping treat individuals impacted by trauma and mental health disorders.

Written by

Hayley Kirsh