Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is as old as war itself. But it has only been in the last several decades that this response to trauma and stress has been studied and attempts made to treat the condition. Only in the last couple of decades has the most effective treatment come to light. This is the use of psychedelic medicines which have gained status as breakthrough treatments by the FDA for both severe depression and PTSD. Because psychedelics can potentially cause hallucinations, they are feared by many instead of welcomed at effective treatment for a damaging condition. What are the side effects of psychedelic treatment for PTSD and such side effects sufficient reason to fear this new, effective treatment?
Psychedelic Medicines As Hallucinogens
When people take psychedelic drugs for recreational purposes, they often are seeking hallucinogenic effects. Hallucinogenic drugs have the potential to alter thinking processes and perception in such ways as to make the world different from what is normally perceived. Unlike drugs that depress the nervous system or stimulate it, hallucinogens alter states of perception beyond what is familiar or “real.” Most of the effects of hallucinogens have to do with the effects of serotonin, a neurotransmitter.
Hallucinogens include phencyclidine or PCP, ketamine, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD.
People who use hallucinogens recreationally commonly mix them with other drugs, intentionally or not while seeking to broaden their cognitive or spiritual horizons. Unfortunately, the risk of severe side effects goes up with intentionally mixing hallucinogens with narcotics, alcohol, stimulants, or benzodiazepines or because these people use street drugs that do not come in standardized doses or quality.
The effects of hallucinogens vary based on the drug used and the amount taken as well as with mixing drugs. Most commonly people experience euphoria, a sense of wellbeing which is typically the goal. However, the same people using the same mix of drugs may experience despair, hopelessness, and severe anxiety. With long term use there are reports of long term depression, poor motivation, anxiety, and other emotional issues. Because these individuals are in controlled studies, cause and effect is unclear.
Physical Side Effects of Psychedelics
Drugs like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) can increase one’s heart rate, elevate or depress blood pressure, increase reflexes, cause tremors, affect muscle coordination, dilate the pupils, cause panic or paranoia, and distort one’s sense of the passage of time along with providing visual hallucinations.
Duration of Psychedelic Side Effects
The vast majority of both treatment effects and side effects of psychedelics occur within and are limited to the time when the drug is taken until it leaves the system within a few hours. Lingering side effects seen in some recreational drug users do not apply to those who are treated with drugs like MDMA or psilocybin for depression and PTSD as these people or patients only receive one or two doses, only receive pharmaceutical grade medicines, do not mix the drugs, and are treated with relatively small amounts.
Why Psychedelics Work to Treat Depression and PTSD
A useful way to envision how pharmaceuticals work to treat any disease is to think of how one uses a key to open a lock. The drug has a very specific effect that the treatment provider is attempting to use to help the patient. The specific effect of the medicine does not require huge doses. In the case of psychedelics, the goal is to break the hold that deep seated fear and anxiety have on a person who experienced life threatening trauma. Neurological pathways were altered by the traumatic event and reinforced by constantly reliving those experiences. Psychedelics in relatively small amounts and taken only once or twice have been shown to break the neurological bonds in the brain that have held the patient captive for so long. The fortunate thing about psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin is that they are effective in achieving their therapeutic effects in far lower amounts and frequency than are commonly used for recreational purposes and in settings meant to help the patient get better instead of likely to confuse or harm them emotionally.
At No Fallen Heroes we are dedicated to reducing and eliminating veteran suicide and, therefore, the risk factors like depression and PTSD that lead to suicide. The FDA has allowed controlled studies of psychedelics to proceed and results are so promising that one may expect to see these life saving medicines to be available for treatment within a year or two.