Psychedelic medicines offer great hope for those who suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance, abuse and chronic anxiety. These medicines can treat conditions like depression and PTSD, that are risk factors for suicide among veterans as well as the general population. Because medicines like psilocybin and MDMA cause structural changes in the brain their benefits last longer without having to continually take the medicines. This raises the question. What are the long term effects of psychedelic medicines? What are the promises and what are the perils of these amazing medicines?
Psychedelics and Structural Brain Changes
Medicines like antidepressants either block or facilitate receptors in the brain. By doing so, they commonly help with conditions like depression. However, their effects are short lived because as soon as the drug is out of a person’s system the effects wear off. Psychedelics have been shown to cause the growth of more branches of brain neurons. This causes more cross connections in the brain and increases processing ability. These new neurons last and therefore the effects of meds like MDMA and psilocybin last even after the drug is out of a person’s system.
Repeated Psychedelic Use and Brain Changes
One psychedelic that has been used in therapeutic and ceremonial settings for centuries is ayahuasca. This plant and herb concoction has been used in the northwest Amazon basin. People who have taken this medicine routinely demonstrate higher scores for self-transcendence which is a personality trait measuring religiousness, transpersonal feelings and spirituality. Part of this appears to track back to the structural changes that come from repeated use of this medicine.
Modern Psychedelic Brain Research
Modern research confirms that long-term changes in psychological functioning routinely occur after psychedelic use. These changes include spirituality, meditative practices, connectedness, emotional breakthroughs, and great emotional wellbeing. They also include depression, anxiety, and changes in attitudes and personality. Continuing mystical experiences after taking psychedelics are also noted. In the modern research setting there are very few adverse effects from treatment with psychedelics. This is because individuals with prior adverse effects, psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia, and other risk factors are screened out and typically not given these medicines.
Adverse Long-term Psychedelic Effects
People who are not properly screened before being treated with psychedelic medicines can develop problems that endure. Both persistent psychosis and flashbacks are risks. Flashback or persisting perception disorder, like psychosis, are more common in people with preexisting psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. People with flashbacks suffer from hallucinations, and stroke-like symptoms or symptoms similar to brain tumors. Those with persistent psychosis may experience visual difficulties in addition to disorganized thinking, and paranoia. Because psychedelics do not last all that long after a single dose, the cause of these long-term troubles is probably structural changes at the level of neuron branches and connections.
The Setting for Psychedelic Treatment Is Critical for Positive Results
MDMA, psilocybin, and other psychedelics have shown impressive results when used to help treat conditions like PTSD and depression as well as substance abuse issues. In all cases, the psychedelic medicine is used as adjunctive therapy to enhance the effectiveness of coaching or psychotherapy. Thus, individuals receive these medicines in quiet settings with a guide at hand. The point is commonly to allow the individual to access painful old memories. These same memories normally trigger PTSD flashbacks or worsen a person’s depression. By reducing the fear and anxiety associated with such memory recall a person is able to retrieve, assess, and come to grips with memories of their past. They can put painful events back in the past where they belong and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, when someone who is predisposed to having trouble with psychedelics or when they take the medicine in the wrong setting the experience can end up being painful and damaging instead of therapeutic.
Psychedelics and a Little or a Lot of a Good Thing
A bit of common sense is needed with thinking about psychedelic medicines. When a person has a headache, taking an aspirin can relieve their pain. However, too much aspirin leads to an overdose and can be fatal. A shot of penicillin can cure a strep throat but the doctor will not keep giving shots once the person is feeling better. There is excellent research evidence that psychedelics in the right dosage and given sparingly are curative for depression and PTSD. Keeping psychedelic use in that context is likely to be helpful and the best way to avoid any bad long-term side effects.