The Science of Psychedelics - Why Psilocybin is a Tool, not a Silver Bullet


In our quest for improvement, healing, and wellness, we are often caught in the fruitless search for a silver bullet - the one thing that will, once and for all, solve all our problems for us. Many people turn to psychedelics with this hope in mind. While psychedelics offer an incredibly powerful means of self-exploration and healing, psychedelics - by themselves - are limited.



It's when they are paired with:

  • the desire to make a change,

  • clear intentions for your desired outcome,

  • the right setting,

  • skilled therapeutic intervention, and

  • integration

that more meaningful and lasting effects can take place for someone. Here, we'll delve a bit deeper into the effects of some commonly used psychedelics, and discuss their value when used in conjunction with psychotherapy.


Different strokes for different folks

Accompanying the renaissance of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, sparked largely thanks to the work of Roland Griffiths (2006), has come a wider cultural interest in different psychedelic molecules and how they can positively influence our emotional lives. While all psychedelics are ‘mind manifesting’ because they:

  • alter consciousness

  • facilitate deep self-reflection

  • deepen empathy, and

  • foster a sense of union with other people and the world around us,

they are all quite different in their effects and the subjective experiences of these different molecules are unique. That is to say, ketamine doesn’t feel that same as MDMA or psilocybin, despite each of them being classed under the same umbrella of psychedelics.


These variations are more than just differences in ‘flavor’, so to speak. They are differences in the phenomenological journey one experiences (in other words, what it is like to experience the effects of a particular substance) and have unique advantages for different forms of emotional exploration and healing.


MDMA

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), as demonstrated by the groundbreaking MAPS research over the last few years, is an immensely effective treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has shown rapid and robust treatment effects in comparison to conventional treatments in the form of traditional psychiatric medication and psychotherapy. Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, the lead researcher on these studies, concluded that,

“these data indicate that, compared with manualized therapy with inactive placebo, MDMA-assisted therapy is highly efficacious in individuals with severe PTSD, and treatment is safe and well-tolerated, even in those with comorbidities. We conclude that MDMA-assisted therapy represents a potential breakthrough treatment that merits expedited clinical evaluation.”

The graph below indicates an effect size of .91 which means that about 91% of participants who received MDMA-assisted therapies showed significant and even complete remission of PTSD symptoms after only 3 sessions; which is vastly superior to traditional medications and therapies that typically show effect sizes of .36 and .46 respectively.



The question that remained for many was why MDMA was unique in this regard. The answer lay in its unique pharmacological effects. MDMA is considered to be an ‘empathogen- while it does not give rise to hallucinations like other psychedelics, this molecule alters consciousness by inducing powerful feelings of self-care, understanding, and compassion for self and others, which can be uniquely beneficial when revisiting a trauma. Without therapy to accompany this molecule, one would simply feel profound euphoria and love, which is positive in itself. However, when carefully guided to revisit a trauma in this state, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy allowed someone to emotionally unlearn the previous emotional consequences of a trauma by shedding inappropriate self-blame, finding forgiveness for others through empathic engagement and decoupling feelings of horror and anxiety from memories of the trauma. MDMA becomes a powerful medium of emotional healing and psychotherapy helps one navigate to a place of healing.


PSILOCYBIN

While MDMA can aid in processing single-instance traumas and can offer a targeted, powerful experience, psilocybin offers a different process of healing. As a non-specific 5HTA agonist (a molecule that activates the release of serotonin across many pathways in the brain simultaneously),


psilocybin promotes widespread exploration of various elements in your life (not merely focusing on a single event) to foster deeper self-awareness, facilitate the release of repressed emotions, and to create a sense of union with others and the world around you.

Hallucinatory experiences often allow for different perspectives on one’s life and experience, creating a greater sense of openness and awareness beneficial for future psychological adjustment. The connectogram below includes a ring which represents different regions of the brain. The lines crossing the ring show which brain regions are communicating at a given moment. As illustrated below, psilocybin promotes immense activation and connection to allow you to experience yourself in ways not easily accessible otherwise - a way of recovering and recultivating all the important parts of yourself and your life story.



The power of pairing psilocybin & psychotherapy


In this way, psilocybin offers a gateway to manifest your mind, while psychotherapy serves to help you transform the profound insights gained into real behavioral changes that can improve your life, relationships, and sense of purpose.


Each of the psychedelic medicines, although related, is unique in its offering, but none of them is a silver bullet.

They are powerful agents that accelerate change, but they work most effectively and enduringly when paired with careful guidance and empathic engagement in therapy to transform momentary bliss into sustained behavioral and life changes.

Equanimity’s carefully curated science-based program incorporates the benefits of psychedelics with the advantages of psychotherapy to facilitate better self-understanding, healing, and growth. Visit Our Program page for more information and click on Apply to start your screening process. We would love to welcome you into the growing Equanimity Community!


 

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Photo Credit: resa cahya on Unsplash