Survivors of war and other traumatic events often experience a condition that we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It was called shell shock in soldiers in World War I and concentration camp syndrome in survivors of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In the 1960s psychiatrist Paul Chodoff noted that the most common manifestation of this syndrome was obsessive rumination and constant preoccupation with past traumatic events where there was constant threat to the person and deaths of those close to them. This condition has basically gone with effective treatment ever since it was defined and categorized. The last time the FDA approved drugs to treat PTSD was more than 20 years ago. But that seems to be changing as the Food and Drug Administration has given both MDMA and psilocybin “breakthrough drug” status. This status is given drugs that hold promise to fulfill an unmet need which, in the case of these drugs is PTSD as well as accompanying depression.
Why Do These Psychedelic Drugs Help PTSD and Depression?
The human brain facilitates learning from experience. Touching a hot stove once is generally sufficient to make sure we avoid having the experience again. We develop preoccupations and fears relating to potentially harmful things, especially when we have experienced them for an extended time. Unfortunately, in situations like military combat, a soldier cannot simply walk away from a stressful situation. They can become immersed in their preoccupations and fears. This is especially true when the soldier’s comrades in arms die or are permanently injured or the soldier sustains a traumatic brain injury. The point is that the fear, fight or flight, or depressive responses that go with prolonged trauma become “cemented” into the wiring of the brain. The soldier is back on the farm in Iowa but his or her head is still back in a firefight in Fallujah.
Psilocybin acts like standard antidepressants in increasing the amounts of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the brain. But the key to the success of psilocybin for treating depression and PTSD is that it alters the way that neurons connect to each other in the brain. This function gets to the heart of the matter because it is the “cemented” connections in the brain that don’t let a military veteran with PTSD ever get out of a twenty-year-past combat situation in which they survived and several of their comrades were killed.
When selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used to treat depression, they need to be taken for a long time and sometimes forever. Because psilocybin changes the unhealthy connections in the brain it only needs to be taken for a few doses!
Why Psilocybin Works
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” If simply taking this drug once or twice was the cure-all for depression and PTSD we would have evidence that every “stoner” that took the drug at a rock concert was cured of depression for life. That is clearly not the case. The key is understanding that in PTSD the brain gets “stuck” in a memory cycle. This is because of the intensity of the initial experiences. Psilocybin can help this by loosening up and changing the brain connections. However, the brain will “reconnect” those neurons and the experiences of the person taking psilocybin during treatment are key to recovery. It is critical to go through treatment with these psychedelic medicines with a guide, someone trained to make the trip useful in dealing with depression and PTSD and not a means of creating more problems.
At No Fallen Heroes we are dedicated to dealing with depression and PTSD in our veterans and preventing veteran suicide.