how to talk to a depressed or suicidal friend

 

How to talk to a depressed (or even suicidal) friend

(Note: this article won’t prepare you to be a trained crisis counselor, so keep crisis hotline numbers, which are listed at the end of this article, handy. however, if a friend comes to you for help, one of the best things you can do is listen. below a crisis counselor tells us how.)

 

Suicide isn’t something most of us want to think about, let alone talk about. However we have to be real: the suicide rate has risen by 33% over the past 20 years, and it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Before the pandemic, depression affected over 20% of the population.

The Covid crisis has made things worse for most people. A year later, the CDC now estimates that 40% of the population is struggling with anxiety or depression. Young people are being hit hardest, with a staggering 55-60% of people aged 18-29 experiencing symptoms. There’s been a corresponding rise in suicide attempts by children and teenagers.

These are conversations we may need to have at some point with friends and loved ones, uncomfortable as they may be.

So I asked my friend Sam how we should talk to friends that are depressed, or may even be suicidal. Sam’s been working at a suicide hotline for the last five years.

 

Why do people do it?

The first thing I ask Sam is, why do people do it? I try to get him to open up as to some of the common reasons that people make that decision, or make the call to the suicide hotline. After thousands of conversations with suicidal people, he must have some insight.

“Everything you can think of and then some,” is his response. He can’t comment on any leading causes, nor can he give me any stories. I figure tight-lipped is a trait you’d want in a suicide counselor.

What he can say is, “It’s never just one thing, it’s always a whole bunch of things.”

“It’s like a full grocery bag that you just keep piling stuff in, and eventually it breaks. It wasn’t that last thing that broke it, it was all of those things.” 

So there’s sometimes a straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it’s never just that. 

And of course, it’s subjective.

“People don’t kill themselves because of facts,” he says, “they kill themselves because of their thoughts and feelings.”

I pry a little further, curious if there’s a class dynamic, or if he’s noticed poverty as a factor.

“There’s an incredible diversity of people with access to a telephone,” he says. He resassures me that plenty of calls come from people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. “Mental illness knows no class distinction,” he says

It would make sense that the most disadvantaged would have the least access to resources, like a therapist, or even a crisis hotline number, which likely skews his sample.

Anyways, Sam never claimed to be an expert in mental health statistics. So I did a little more research and found that, as usual, things are worse for the poor. Before Covid, both poverty and substance use disorders were found to be positive predictors of first-time suicide ideation. And poverty puts children and teenagers at greater risk of suicide.

So we may after all have to look out for the least among us, in wealth and stature. It also means that younger people may be having to look out an awful lot for each other.

Though according to Sam, many rich people are desperately unhappy, too. Which leaves me wondering, “Who does this world even work for?”

However this also means no one is immune, and depression and suicide can affect anyone’s family or social network. And we can all learn something about how to be there for others from crisis hotline workers.

 

So how should we talk to a depressed friend?

“Listen,” Sam says again and again.

“You’re not going to solve their problem,” he says. “What you can do is help them get through a moment.”

Our help shouldn’t be their be-all-end-all support system, and nor should we expect ourselves to single-handedly pull them out of their rut. However if we’re put in this delicate position, one of the best ways to help is by listening.

Unfortunately we get in our own way a lot. Sam says it’s normal for us – even those of us who think of ourselves as good communicators – to want to direct the conversation.

Since we naturally want a positive outcome, it’s easy to get distracted by that. However Sam emphasizes the need to keep the focus on the person. We might think that our advice can solve the other person’s problems, but it can’t, he says.

Put yourself in their shoes. More than anything, that person often needs someone to listen, to feel heard and understood.

Only ask open ended questions. A question that can be answered with a yes or no doesn’t encourage people to open up – and it means you’re directing the conversation (without even realizing it).

Here are some examples (but you can come up with your own list):

  • How have you been doing lately?
  • Why do you think you’ve been feeling that way?
  • What happened that makes you think that?
  • What do you think might help you?
  • How can I support you?
  • What do you want to do?

Above all, shut up and listen. We should, “Be cognizant of our own needs becoming impediments, and focus on creating a safe space for people to vent.”

 

What not to do

“Whether or not we have a good intention doesn’t matter in how effective we are at communicating,” Sam tells me.

If someone tells you they’re having suicidal thoughts, try not to freak out on them. This can make things worse. By staying calm, you make it safe for them to open up to you. But even then, we all struggle to communicate and listen.

“A person is not a problem to be solved,” Sam says. “It’s a process, it’s not about solving things.”

“We’re all bad communicators,” he says, “and we all have the same problems when it comes to communication.”

Careful! Even when we think we’re helping, we unconsciously find ways to try to control the conversation, whether because we feel uncomfortable and we’re nervous, because we think we know better, maybe we’re too eager to help, or even just eager to get out of the conversation.

“Have great respect for that which you do not know,” he says. “Just because you don’t understand someone, it doesn’t make them confused.”

Here are a few communication traps to avoid:

  • Patronizing, or treating the person as if they’re a sociological category. 
  • Trapping. Or asking leading questions like, “Have you tried… therapy?” “Have you tried… exercise?”
  • Minimizing the persons concerns. We might think it would help to reframe what seems like a difficult problem as “not that bad” or that it “could be worse”, but this can also make a person feel dismissed and unheard.
  • Anticipating – or finishing another’s sentences or thoughts for them.
  • And there’s scoreboarding, which is focusing on making your points instead of listening out of some need to be right.

 

How do you know if someone is depressed or suicidal?

“It’s often intuitive,” he says. “Look for clues, like has their behavior changed, are they taking care of themselves?”

Because so many people are isolated these days, it can be difficult to know who’s in trouble. It’s good to check in with friends you think might be vulnerable or having a hard time. And if you think someone you know is seriously depressed and might harm themselves, don’t ignore it. 

Don’t avoid the person, or act like everything is okay. “Depressed people are very observant,” Sam says, and they’ll usually notice if people are acting differently around them. So if it’s the elephant in the room, don’t be afraid to say that you notice it.

“They know it makes people uncomfortable, because it forces them to consider something that most people would prefer not to think about,” he says. So a lot of people who are suffering with suicidal thoughts may not bring them up because they think it will make people uneasy.

On the other hand, there’s a certain finesse involved. If your friend is depressed and you want to create a safe space where they can open up to you, maybe don’t just come out and say, “Hey buddy you seem really depressed lately wanna talk about it?”

Try to avoid judgmental language. Obviously if they’re hinting at it, or otherwise confided in you, they’ve opened up a door that makes it easier to communicate with them about serious issues.

If they’re more secretive, or not a close friend, you’ll have to use your best judgment to determine if and how to bring these issues up with them.

Sam suggests “tip-toeing your way into the conversation,” as you would into a pool, for instance by bringing up changes in their behavior.

For example, you might “tip-toe” your way in by asking something like, “I noticed you haven’t been leaving your room much, is everything okay?” or “You’ve been quiet lately, is something on your mind?”

Even if they say they’re okay, if they’re clearly not, you can leave your proverbial door open for them to chat with you. Make sure they know that they can text or call you if they need anything or just want to talk. Or invite them out for a coffee just to talk about life.

On the other hand, if someone is practically begging for help, pay attention.

“Take people seriously if they express or hint that they’d like to kill themselves,” Sam says. “Whether or not you think they’ll go through with it, it’s a call for help and a sign of something being seriously wrong.”

However, before diving (or tip-toeing) into a conversation, first ask yourself “Do I really want to get into this?” Because if you’re not willing to sit down and really listen, maybe you shouldn’t be the one having that conversation. If not, hotline numbers are below.

Remember, the golden rule: listen.  And empathy helps. That whole “do unto others” bit.

However if it becomes too much for you, or you don’t feel like you’re helping, get them to talk to a mental health worker or crisis counselor. Even calling a suicide hotline with them might help them overcome anxiety about making a call that could be the first step in getting help.

 

Just being there

There are other ways of supporting your depressed friends. Remember, they’re likely feeling alone, so just spending time with them or watching a movie (or chatting with them online or on Zoom) can make a big difference.

“Just being there has value,” says Sam. “We’re social creatures.”

listening to your friends

 

Sam adds that it may be tempting to want to hear a “thank you” at the end of the conversation. But people in distress are often so preoccupied by their problems they can’t think beyond them. 

“So sometimes you won’t get a thank you and that’s fine. Just being there listening – especially if they feel like they were heard,” can save someone else’s life, or at least get them through a moment.

 

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can also find resources at the Samaritans website.

 

 

What is trauma? Recognizing the causes, signs, and symptoms of PTSD & C-PTSD

By Tina Phillips, MSW 

 

“Vulnerability is our susceptibility to be wounded. This fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function.”

~ Dr. Gabor Maté

When Alyssa came out of an abusive relationship, she was relieved, and thought things would get better. But she didn’t feel like herself; just because it was over, it didn’t mean she was okay. Like many who have been in abusive relationships, she had become isolated from friends and family. She even moved away so her abuser couldn’t find her, but still, everything put her on alert. She didn’t understand her feelings or recognize the symptoms of PTSD; after all, it was over, wasn’t it?

Moving and starting a new job with undiagnosed PTSD led to chronic stress. The only way she knew to deal with her hyperarousal, episodes of panic, and depression was by drinking. It was only after a breakdown that she received medical attention, connected with a network of survivors, and began to recover. Even though the traumatic event was over, Alyssa was still in survival mode. Recovering from trauma can be an ordeal in itself. It takes time to heal, and it’s hard to do it alone.

 

What is trauma?

Trauma is a natural emotional response to an event or an emotional experience by a person that felt a threat to their life or safety. Examples of such events can range from childhood abuse and neglect, to military combat, to sexual assault, or even poverty and chronic stress. These experiences can be jarring for a person’s brain, stress hormones, and create a feeling of being overwhelmed and not in control. These events can be a one time experience or could be over a period of time, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)orComplex PTSD (C-PTSD).

 

Symptoms of PTSD & C-PTSD

PTSD can present itself as emotional distress, distrust of others, fear and anxiety, and emotional dysregulation. Childhood is one of the worst times to experience trauma, and can affect a person life-long and have consequences on overall healthlater in life.  Repeated or long-term trauma, especially during childhood, is more likely to cause C-PTSD.

C-PTSD manifests with most of the same symptoms of PTSD, but usually in greater severity. People with C-PTSD are more likely to experience prolonged feelings of low self-esteem, shame, isolation, emotional dysregulation, difficulty in relationships, and sometimes feelings of intense anger or shame. They’re also more likely to be revictimized. 


Emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation can throw a person off from interacting with the world around them. The “inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses to” input around them, causing exaggerated or inappropriate emotional reactions, especially when triggered. This can cause trouble with relationships, create barriers for daily functioning, and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Barriers in daily functioning could mean one is distracted by intrusive thoughts, bombarded by reliving their trauma or being reminded of it when stressed or emotionally hurt by others, paralyzed by anxiety and fear, overwhelmed from demands in their life, and unable to properly care for themselves. This may mean the struggle to keep themselves well fed, get enough sleep, shower, go to work or school, do chores, maintain relationships, or seek help.

Triggers 

Triggers are when things happen to us that remind us of our trauma. It can send us into an emotional shut down. It can be anything that elicits our symptoms. Furthermore, during emotional dysregulation people often become hypervigilant, experience hyperarousal, and can disassociate. Some also have flashbacks and nightmares, where they relive their trauma. 

Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance causes people to be on guard and scan their environment looking for danger, that may not really be there. It’s an exaggerated response by the nervous system that has been hurt by trauma.

Hyperarousal 

Hyperarousal is when the central nervous system is firing and keeping one awake and alert to be prepared for an impending attack. Often there is no real danger, but our minds and bodies are tricking us into thinking there is. 

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

~ Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Dissociation

Dissociation is when you lose touch with yourself and anything around you. It’s almost like daydreaming, except it’s often more like a fog you get lost in that shuts down the world outside your inner reality. This is our brain’s way of coping with overwhelming stress, and is a defense mechanism. 

Somatization

Somatization is when a psychological stressor manifests itself in physical symptoms. Examples include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle aches and weakness, and fatigue. 

“The bodies of traumatized people portray ‘snapshots’ of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word- they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.”

~ Peter A. Levine

 

Stress response as an evolutionary adaptation 

There is an evolutionary function for the trauma response causing intense bouts of stress. This response is the body’s natural reaction to perceived threats of harm. Back in the savannah days our ancestors did have very real threats to their lives, such as large, predatory animals. Later, warfare or raiding was a reality between some tribes and villages. Though violent attacks are no longer imminent threats for most of us, now we have a leftover stress response that can be out of proportion to our everyday modern life. “[If you’re] a normal mammal, you had better turn on the stress response or else you’re dead. But if you get chronically, psychologically stressed, like a Westernized human, then you are more at risk for heart disease and some of the other leading causes of death in Westernized life,” says  Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. In fact when we are under stress our bodies secrete hormones such as cortisol, and blood rushes to our vital organs to keep us alive in case of an attack, causing physical symptoms we associate with anxiety– tight chest, tingling/cold hands, sweat, dry throat, gastro-intestinal upset, back and headaches, and rapid heartbeat. But now instead of real physical threats to our lives, most of us have everyday stressors and trauma throughout our lives that can come back to torment us over and over.

Furthermore, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental conditions that come about in part due to stress and trauma, end up being risk factors for real physical diseases. We may be susceptible to certain conditions biologically, but it’s our social environment that elicits those traits to be expressed. The social environment is that which we live in, and can involve social interactions, family structure, schooling, political and cultural factors, a community in which a person grew up, relationships a person has, and any abuse or trauma they endured throughout their life, particularly in childhood. The reason childhood is such a large factor is because the human brain is still developing at this time and the trauma will shape the brain, causing patterns a child learned in order to survive their abuse into potentially life-long conditions, both physical and mental. 

 

Capitalism causes trauma 

“It is the economic and political system under which we live—capitalism—which is responsible for the enormously high levels of mental-health problems which we see in the world today.” 

~Iain Ferguson

It has been demonstrated and bared out in data that existing in a capitalist society doesn’t help most people psychologically. In fact, “research since at least the 1930s has consistently documented that mental illnesses are more common among those with lower levels of income, education, and occupational prestige.” 

The economic system we live under is exploitative, oppressive, and leads to stratification, political and cultural polarization, and isolation. There are a lot of “have-nots” these days. Millions can’t pay their rent, and are being threatened with losing their homes. When the stock market goes up, it just means that CEOs get more money, while income inequality and costs rise, and wages stay flat. So many young adults are now saddled with student loan debt, but don’t have high paying jobs and suffer without affordable housing, healthcare, or other social safety nets.

Some work themselves to the bone, yet they just aren’t making it, and are forced to live with their parents or several roommates, and delay starting families. For others, job insecurity means housing or food insecurity, and can in itself be a source of enormous stress, leading to states of hyperarousal similar to that in PTSD. People with less control over their jobs have higher rates of mental health issues like depression, especially when the jobs are also demanding. We too often don’t have enough time off or benefits to adequately take care of our mental or physical health, and many people have to work more than one job to survive.

People can’t wait until the weekend, but when the weekend hits it’s all chores, errands, caring for loved ones, and catching up on sleep. When Monday hits it starts all over again, leading to burnout and for many, mental distress. It is soul crushing. If we’re in poverty because we’re unemployed or can’t find a job that pays enough we’re more vulnerable to further traumatic events; we’re more likely to suffer from violence and abuse, not to mention extremely stressful situations such as homelessness or incarceration. All of these situations can be traumatizing, and the ways people may try to cope can lead to more problems, such as when people try to self-medicate and become addicted to substances. #ba6db5

Too many of us find ourselves where we’re overworked, in poverty, or both. Businesses seek to maximize their profits at our expense, and then discard us when the toll on our health leads to a crisis. Our economic system isn’t working for most people, causing more problems than it solves, and in many cases causing mental health issues, which we’re made to feel inadequate for. In so many ways, capitalism is just plain bad for our mental health. In this sense, trauma is often systemic.

 

Racism, oppression, and trauma

Furthermore, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression intersect with capitalism, and America has a long history of exploiting people to extract wealth such as through slavery, imperialist occupation, wars, policing, and colonization. There is also historical trauma. For example, Black people may experience Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (however there is also criticism of this theory, as some argue it presents Black culture as dysfunctional, instead of locating problems in continued institutional and everyday racism, as well as an economic system which denies people their basic needs). The point is that the legacy of slavery and racism may cause intergenerational, even epigenetic trauma, that causes both mental and physical health issues to be passed down to the next generation. Low-income Black people in the US have a rate of PTSD higher than combat veterans; some studies have estimated that 20-30% of people in these communities meet the criteria for PTSD. Given this we have every incentive to fight for a better world and do away with white supremacy, racism, and capitalism, which is a root cause of trauma.

 

Trauma isn’t always obvious

Though they may not pose direct threats to our lives, experiences of psychological abuse, such as bullying, neglect, isolation, exclusion, harassment, mistreatment in the workplace, racism, and other forms of oppression are responded to by our brains in a similar way to physical pain, and when acute or chronic, can result in PTSD or C-PTSD. Emotional abuse that takes place in childhood, repeatedly, or over time is more likely to cause PTSD, and factors such as having a support network play a role. While victims of violent situations may understand they’ve undergone trauma, in these less obvious circumstances, trauma may go unnoticed or misdiagnosed. 

People can experience PTSD or C-PTSD for months, years, or even decades if left untreated. Since symptoms can look like depression, anxiety, or Borderline Personality Disorder, and because some people block out certain traumatic events from their pasts, many go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. Recognizing PTSD and the source of trauma can help survivors and those around them to better understand their thoughts and behavior, seek support and treatment, and begin to recover.

 

What can we do?

“The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce in the way a developing child will continue to interpret the world and her situation in it. All too often these ill-conditioned implicit beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. We create meanings from our unconscious interpretation of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meaning we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past…Mindful awareness can bring into consciousness those hidden, past-based perspectives so that they no longer frame our worldview.”   ~ Dr. Gabor Maté 

Given how common and frequent trauma is in our society, how overwhelming it can be and difficult to overcome, what can we do about it? There are individual solutions and systemic solutions. Both are needed, and both have potential to aid mental health and help heal trauma. Individual solutions may be more immediate in relieving symptoms of trauma, while systemic solutions may take longer, but have longer-lasting impacts for society as a whole.

Now that we’ve looked at how to recognize trauma, it’s causes and it’s symptoms, it’s time to look towards solutions. There are so many ways to heal ourselves, be there for others, and transform our society. I go into some detail on them in 30 individual and collective ways to heal from trauma.

 

A bottle of CBD oil for anxiety

 

CBD as a treatment for social anxiety

 

 

 

 

Cannabis has been used as a treatment for anxiety and depression for ages, and since medical marijuana has been legalized in many places it now often comes with a doctor’s recommendation. However in some patients – especially at high doses – cannabis can have an adverse effect, triggering anxiety and even panic. This is mostly due to THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. 

CBD, or cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis – meaning it doesn’t get you high. It’s known as an anxiolytic and an adaptogen, relieving anxiety and stress through a few different mechanisms.

A few recent studies – which I’ll review here – have found CBD to be effective in treating social anxiety. CBD is also being investigated as a treatment for conditions as diverse as PTSD, addiction, and Alzheimer’s.

cbd for social anxiety

How does CBD work?

Cannabidiol appears to work in a few different ways; by supporting our body’s natural endocannabinoid system and lowering the secretion of stress hormones, activating serotonin, and attenuating the response of the amygdala, which is responsable for our fear response.

Among other functions, the endocannabinoid system regulates stress hormones. You may have heard of cortisol. It’s known to go wild in those of us susceptible to stress and anxiety, but CBD limits its secretion. That’s right, studies have found CBD to significantly decrease cortisol levels.

CBD is an endocannabinoid agonist, meaning it binds to and activates the  endocannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoid system is still not well understood, but CB1 receptors are thought to influence our mood, thought, motor activity, pain, and short-term memory. The euphoria you feel after a workout? That’s in part the result of natural stimulation of your CB1 receptors. CB2 receptors support other essential systems including the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, immune system, reproductive system, skin, and eyes.

In addition to supporting the complex endocannabinoid system, CBD binds to serotonin 1A (5-HT1A) receptors. Activation of serotonin 1A receptors is generally thought to decrease aggression, increase sociability, and reduce impulsivity, drug-seeking behavior, and food intake. Serotonin 1A receptors are targeted by antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. A lack or dysfunction of serotonin 1A receptors is a common feature of people with panic disorders, and so in theory, CBD should also help with that more severe, sudden anxiety we know as panic as well.

 

Studies on CBD and social anxiety

Because of its wide range of uses, many studies have been carried out and more are underway to discover the full therapeutic potential of CBD. 

One promising use is the treatment of social anxiety. With social media replacing real life interaction, and many of us self-isolating for the past year, we’re more socially anxious than ever. Official numbers say that around 7% of Americans suffer from some form of social anxiety, however census data tells us that 37% of the population is now struggling with some form of anxiety.

So it’s worth taking a look at the research studies carried out to test the impact of CBD on social anxiety. In experiments, usually measured by having subjects complete a public speaking test, because this is a common trigger for the socially anxious.

The first study compared self-reported feelings of anxiety as well as physical symptoms in a group with social anxiety that took 600mg CBD before the public speaking test with control groups; one without social anxiety and one with social anxiety that didn’t take CBD. The study found that  the effects of CBD on social anxiety were significant; CBD substantially relieved anxiety in socially anxious participants before, during, and after the test. It also reduced symptoms of anxiety such as cognitive impairment and discomfort.

The study also measured negative self-statements after the test, finding that CBD almost completely eliminated negative self-evaluation in subjects with social anxiety.

600mg is a rather high dose of CBD. And so a more recent study set out to test the outcomes of three different doses of CBD: 150mg, 300mg, and 600mg. It found the middle dose of 300mg to be the most effective. This is a relief, because CBD is expensive!

The authors of the study speculate that 300mg of CBD was the most effective dose as a treatment for social anxiety because higher doses of CBD may trigger a paradoxical response by activating the brain’s TRPV1 receptors. This stimulates the release of glutamate, producing an excitatory response and negating some of the anxiolytic effects of the CBD (I know, the brain’s weird).

Anyway, the takeaway is that the effects of CBD as a treatment for social anxiety peak around 300mg, and there’s likely not much benefit in going higher than that. However, sensitivity to CBD is highly variable, and everyone has a different optimal dose, and doses as low as 25mg may be effective.

And it’s not just for the socially anxious; another study just published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology repeated these speaking test studies, finding that 300mg of CBD also reduced anxiety and tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

All around, the findings are promising for CBD as a treatment for anxiety.

CBD is also being researched for its ability to alleviate stress, cognitive disorders, insomnia, pain, addiction, PTSD, and even schizophrenia. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and appears to have neuroprotective properties, and so is also being investigated as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

 

Where can I get it?

cbd for social anxietyCBD is now legal in all but three states: Idaho, South Dakota, and Iowa. So you may be able to find it at a local pharmacy or shop, or order it online. However because CBD is a supplement and not controlled by the FDA, quality and potency will vary. If you live in a state with legal medical marijuana, try getting a doctor´s recommendation; dispensaries may have higher quality CBD products.

If you buy online, read reviews to find a good product. Most reputable CBD sellers will make the milligram amount of a tincture available on their website or packaging.

CBD is now sold in a few different forms: CBD oil, capsules, flowers, and topical creams.

Obviously, higher percentage CBD oil of 10% or 20% will be more potent than a 2.5% or 5% tincture. Capsules will give you a more precise dose, while with flowers or topical and cosmetic products the dose will be much harder to gauge.

Everyone responds differently and the optimal dose will vary. so you may have to experiment a little at first. Check out this CBD dosage guide to see how much might be right for you.

Though doses of 300mg to 600mg were used in experiments to measure the response of the socially anxious to CBD, a fraction of that will be enough to experience beneficial results for most.

And if you’re pregnant, maybe wait a few months: a study on rats just revealed that CBD exposure during natal development increased anxiety in the offspring.

 

Society makes us depressed

A critique of modern, behavioral psychology

psychiatry

 

“No culture on earth is as heavily narcotized as the industrial West in terms of being inured to the consequences of maladaptive behavior. We pursue a business-as-usual attitude in a surreal atmosphere of mounting crises and irreconcilable contradictions.”===

― Terence McKenna


When you’re depressed, or “mentally ill”, the implication is that there’s something wrong with you. And usually, you feel like there is. That’s a big part of your problem.

40 million Americans suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, and more than that report depressive symptoms. Another 40 million are at risk of eviction, at least 10 million are unemployed, and in 2019, 35 million Americans were food insecure.

Hmmmm, could these issues have something to do with each other?

It took a pandemic for the media to entertain the idea that our environment could have something to do with the way we feel.

“It’s a disease” is the accepted reason. It doesn’t exactly mean that it’s “your fault”, but what else would it be? This causes even more shame, as a depressed person often doesn’t know why they’re depressed let alone how to get out of it. To ease the guilt they’ll blame your brain chemistry, or a lack of sunlight and exercise. Of course, these can play a role.

Yet fundamentally, psychiatry and society teach us that if we’re mentally ill, there’s something wrong with us. Ultimately, people know they’re in the psychiatrist’s office because of a perceived abnormality in their feelings or behavior. That they have chemical imbalances or maladaptive thoughts implies that the individuals themselves are maladaptive. 

This also implies that we live in a society worthy of adapting to.

It discounts the legitimate reasons we have to be depressed, like the impacts of isolation, sexism, racism, or capitalism. An abusive relationship, a toxic family or school life, or financial troubles that lead to chronic stress. Or simply not having been able to live up to the cultural expectations of being a pop star – or whatever we were taught to believe meant success – when we grew up. Or even being able to move out of our parents’ basement.

Sure, changing our thinking may help us be a little less anxious, or cultivate a more positive outlook. And there’s nothing wrong with that. However these changes are superficial, individual, and usually not enough to bring lasting happiness or well-being, because they don’t address the real problem, which isn’t really you. 

Many of us are longing for something completely different; we need a better society.

Though sometimes we may find labels useful, psychological disorders and their treatments are also yet another form of social control. The conditions themselves and the stigma make you feel “less than”, and get you to internalize a sense of weakness, inadequacy, and powerlessness. Or maybe the diagnosis helps you make sense of these feelings, and knowing there are millions of others like you brings you some sense of relief. Either way, we’re all pathologized and made powerless. Then the antidepressants or antipsychotics restore your ability to function in the world, so you can get out of bed and go to your job, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

 

 

The creation of modern day psychology

In the mid-20th century, psychology changed. One change was the shift from psychoanalysis to behaviorism.

Ivan Pavlov, whose famous experiments conditioned dogs to respond to stimuli, laid the groundwork for behavioral psychology. Psychoanalysis had been the dominant psychological framework beforehand. focused on the patient’s thought process, childhood, traumas, and talk therapy, or free association that was meant to unlock the subject’s unconscious conflicts.

When it took over, behavioral psychology declared psychoanalysis “unscientific” (it’s much better to treat people like dogs). The worst bits of psychoanalysis (such as the Oedipus Complex) were used to completely undermine it. Psychoanalysis, however, at least examined the unconscious, the role of society, and some scholars were beginning to critique the role of capitalism in the human psyche and our malaise.

Behaviorism is much more insidious; do its “scientific experiments” not find more means of population control?

Just look at the classic examples we’re all given in Psych 101: the Milgrim experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are both extreme examples of social control, the latter having been funded by the US military. The Milgrim experiment examined obedience, finding that 65% of participants were willing to deliver maximum 450 volt shocks to another participant when instructed to do so by an authority.

One has to wonder what these supposedly scientific, cognitive psychology experiments have been commissioned by and used for since.

We know that psychology is often used by companies for marketing, but why wouldn’t it also be put to use by the military, the media, and the political class to their advantage?

 

 

Cognitive behavioral psychology

Almost all modern day therapy is based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). More than understanding an individual’s past, CBT focuses on changing their behavior. It looks at how they respond to situations, and teaches them to act in ways that are more adaptive. Many of these methods draw on classical conditioning (dog training).

CBT can have real benefits and may be practical to use in some situations. However by looking no further than the individual and situation itself, this type of therapy reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us if we have trouble adapting.

The goal of CBT, and a lot of psychiatry and medication, is to make the individual functional in a certain context, situation, or environment. However it often neglects that the environment itself may be entirely toxic, in ways that may not even be obvious to the patient or the psychiatrist.

In response to the concept of “mental illness” and the stigma associated with psychiatric diagnoses becoming too negative, a new paradigm called “positive psychology” emerged at the turn of the millennium. It focuses on happiness, well-being, and cultivating character.

Of course, there’s value in activities that enhance our well-being. Taking care of our health, our relationships, and even positive thinking.

But is the answer to 40 million people experiencing anxiety to think more positively?

 

The roots of our mental health epidemic

“There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.”

 bell hooks 

 

If 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder – and those are the official numbers – then there’s something wrong with our society. Yet somehow, the individual is always made to feel there’s something wrong with them, personally, and it makes sense to them because, after all, they don’t feel well. Even if they have been victims of abuse or trauma, layoffs or evictions, or are otherwise dealing with the incredible stressors that come with poverty.

Of course, environmental factors such as nutritional deficiencies and sedentary lifestyles do play a role. However it clearly goes deeper than that. There’s little analysis or discussion of the impact of poverty and economic uncertainty on our mental well-being, or the impact of media, or isolation, or the values of our society. The individual is supposed to take “responsibility” for turning their terrible life around.

So should a homeless person be told to adjust their thought patterns, to think more positively?

They may do so, learn to think more positively, but will that help them get a job, housing, and life stability? Not if there are no jobs, or rent is higher than your paycheck! Can the homeless end homelessness by thinking more positively? No! Homelessness is structural; poverty is a function of political economy, not personal dysfunction.

Sure, anyone can benefit a bit from any type of therapy. But we are applying supposedly individual solutions to glaring social problems. When 40 million Americans are experiencing anxiety, it’s not an individual problem, it’s an environmental, cultural, and economic problem. It’s an epidemic.

It took a pandemic for the media to take note of social and economic causes of depression and anxiety. Even the Washington Post noted that the poorest 20% of Americans worry twice as much as the wealthiest 20%.

The solution, then, can’t be individual. We cannot form new thought patterns that magically create good jobs and affordable housing. We cannot think our way into universal health care. These are social and economic problems that demand political responses.

If you’re depressed and anxious, however, you’re far less likely to talk to your coworkers, let alone form a union.

What are some of the social, cultural, and economic causes of depression, anxiety, and mental health problems in our society?

Individualism, expectations, cultural norms, isolation, trauma, cultural institutions?

Why are you depressed, or anxious?

Don’t blame yourself; change the world.

 

Magic mushrooms are healthy

The benefits of magic mushrooms

 

By Katalina Lourdes

 

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

– William Blake

 

While sitting in the stairwell of my friend’s basement, I watched a photon come alive in a beam of light. When I closed my eyes, I saw God in the form of a pulsating star. This was my first experience on magic mushrooms.

As a teenager I refused to take my antidepressants on principle. I believed that my depression was trying to tell me something. I think this is often the case, that it signals a problem in your environment, though rejecting treatment risks prolonging depressive episodes, which is also bad for your brain. In retrospect I believe that my experiences with magic mushrooms resolved my depression.

A recent study compared the efficacy of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) versus Lexapro, a typical SSRI, in treating depression. After six weeks of treatment, 57% of the patients who had taken psilocybin no longer met the criteria for depression, versus just 28% for the Lexapro group.

This suggests that magic mushrooms may be twice as effective as traditional anti-depressants in treating depression.

My teenage brain had been onto something. I wasn’t taking them for depression, though. It was the mystical experiences I was after. The insights gave my life more meaning and I became fascinated with psychedelics themselves.

Back then the only place to read about psychedelics was Erowid, and books that spoke of times before they were criminalized.

 

Psychedelic lit review

 

Aldous Huxley claimed that tripping opens up, or “cleanses”, the doors of perception.  In his eponymous essay, Huxley describes his first experience with mescaline in 1953:

 

“I was looking at my furniture, not as the utilitarian who has to sit on chairs, to write at desks and tables, and not as the cameraman or scientific recorder, but as the pure aesthete whose concern is only with forms and their relationships within the field of vision or the picture space. But as I looked, this purely aesthetic, Cubist’s-eye view gave place to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was… back where I had be in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance.”

 

Magic mushrooms and mescaline aren’t quite the same experience, but Huxley and I both saw the sacred in the mundane and the infinite in light. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, hadn’t been synthesized yet, and Huxley didn’t take it until 1960 as a part of the Harvard Psychedelic Research Project with Timothy Leary. His notes on the trip read:

 

“#11 sat in contemplative calm throughout; occasionally produced relevant epigrams; reported experience as an edifying philosophic experience”

 

Within two years of this trip, Huxley wrote Island, a novel about a utopian society in which magic mushrooms are a cornerstone and a rite of passage. The novel is the counterpoint to Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World, in which people are numbed by the drug soma. In Island, moksha instead awakens the characters. 

In the book, magic mushrooms are referred to as “the moksha-medicine, the reality revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill”. They’re central to happiness, spirituality, as well as harmonious social relations on Pala, the island utopia.

 

“The moksha-medicine prepares one for the reception of gratuitous graces—premystical visions or the full-blown mystical experiences. Meditation is one of the ways in which one co-operates with those gratuitous graces,” explains one of the main characters to a skeptical foreigner.

 

The book reads a little like a how-to guide for both building a society and using sacred plants. Huxley emphasizes meditation to tell us that psychedelics aren’t necessarily a panacea in themselves, and should be accompanied by spiritual practice.

As he concludes in The Doors of Perception:

 

“…the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.

“He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance… yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

 

However Island ends on a tragic, or perhaps cautionary note; the peaceful society is destroyed by a neighboring country after its oil.

In the neurobiological sense, most psychedelics work by activating serotonin receptors, promoting the neuroplasticity of existing brain cells, and possibly by stimulating neurogenesis–the growth of new brain cells. With these changes, our brains become more flexible, more open to new perspectives, able to think in new ways, solve old problems, and form new habits.

It isn’t simply a cognitive process, however. It’s through mystical experiences that we’re transformed, and may find meaning and empathy that will help us in our daily lives.

Therapy or spiritual practices like meditation, and even journaling can reinforce the insights and transformational effects of psychedelics, integrating our experience. Exercise and nutrition also play a role in the overall health, plasticity, and mental resiliency of our brain. With time, however, new neural pathways often turn into old habits, and we tend to lose plasticity.

Of course, you can take them again to renew their effects. In Island, characters take moksha periodically throughout their lives, and the message is that so should we. One character uses it to deal with their grief after losing her spouse. As he himself was dying, Huxley asked his wife, Laura, to inject him with LSD.

 

The history of magic mushrooms

 

There’s some evidence that humans have been using magic mushrooms for at least 6,000 years. In the book Food of the Gods the psychonaut philosopher Terence McKenna speculates that they even played a role in human evolution, particularly our development of language. Based on what we’re now learning about how it works in the brain, he may have been right.

Artwork as well as records kept by Spanish monks indicate that magic mushrooms were used extensively by the Aztecs. Their word for the plant, teōnanācatl, means “divine mushroom”. They were also used in Mayan civilization and throughout Central America going back at least 3,500 years, and are still used by some indigenous groups in the region. Of the over 200 mushroom species that contain psilocybin, 54 can be found in Mexico. 

Magic mushrooms were introduced to the West by the mycologist and banker R. Gordon Wasson, who travelled to Mexico in search of them in 1956. The trip was funded by the CIA; Wasson was an unwitting participant in their MK-Ultra program. A Mazatec sage named Maria Sabina included Wasson and his wife in a velada, or traditional magic mushroom ritual. Wasson wrote an article about his experience for Life magazine, and went on to write a book which revealed Sabina’s name and location. Soon after, hippies began flooding her Oaxaca village. The impacts on her community eventually led her to be ostracized from it; her house burned down.

So far the history of magic mushrooms is one of the destruction of civilizations that held them sacred.

Albert Hoffman, the chemist who discovered LSD in 1943, isolated and synthesized psilocybin in 1958.

Research was carried out throughout the 1950s and 60s into the therapeutic uses of both psilocybin and LSD, which showed promise for resolving psychological problems, notably alcoholism. Psilocybin was even marketed by Hofmann’s employer, Sandoz Laboratories, and sold in pharmacies under the brand name Indocybin for a decade until psychedelics were outlawed in the US in 1970.

Along with marijuana, psychedelics were designated as Schedule 1 substances, with “high addictive potential” and “no medical use”. Investigation into their therapeutic uses ceased, and the drug war ensued.

As Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, admitted , the drug war was never really about the drugs:

 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

 

Now, after 50 years of prohibition, we’re in a “psychedelic renaissance”. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and the market are finally acknowledging the positive role that psilocybin and other psychedelics can play in our mental health. In the past decade, clinical research has demonstrated incredible rates of success in relieving symptoms of a range of disorders including depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and addiction, which I briefly review below.

The existing body of research is small but growing rapidly. There’s talk of decriminalization in more cities and states, and descheduling at the federal level that would open the doors to mainstream therapeutic use.

Yet there are figures like Wasson seeking to personally profit from the use of these substances, at the expense of accesibility to those who need them most. Before even emerging from Schedule 1 status, corporations are trying to control the magic mushroom experience. With therapeutic use likely to be approved by the FDA within the next couple of years – and one company trying to dominate the market – we have yet to see how the use of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes will play out.

 

 

Research on the benefits of magic mushrooms

 

The first study to establish the value of magic mushrooms after limited research was reauthorized by the FDA in 1992 was carried out by Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University in 2000. The results, published in 2006, paved the way for further psychedelic research.

The experiment was meant to assess the ability of psilocybin to induce mystical experiences, and a high dose was administered to a small sample of healthy adults who regularly engaged in religious or spiritual practices. Two-thirds of the volunteers rated the experience among the top five meaningful experiences of their lives. 

These findings were replicated in a 2011 follow up study, in which participants who took four doses of psilocybin in a supported environment showed improved attitudes, mood, and social relationships in follow ups both two and 14 months later, demonstrating the long-term benefits of magic mushrooms. In this study, 78% of participants said that the psilocybin sessions were among the top five meaningful experiences of their lives, and 94% said the same in a follow up 14 months later. None of the volunteers reported negative consequences resulting from the experiences.

The improved results in this second study likely had to do with repeated trips; each participant had four sessions. They found that the most effective distribution of the doses was from lowest to highest dose. The researchers also further optimized set and setting, providing each participant with eight hours of preparation.

At the 14 month follow up, participants were asked to describe how the psilocybin experiences had impacted their lives. Here are some of their responses:

 

“I have a stronger desire for devotion, have increased yoga practice and prayer. I have better interaction with close friends and family and with acquaintances and strangers… I feel more certain of my career as an author. I need less food to make me full. My alcohol use has diminished dramatically… I consider myself to be better [at self-care] now than before the study…”

 

“I feel that I relate better in my marriage. There is more empathy – a greater understanding of people and understanding their difficulties and less judgment. Less judging of myself too.”

 

“I am more aware and accepting [of everyone]. I have a thousand ideas to write about and am making time and space in my life to accommodate them.”

 

Magic mushrooms, depression, and anxiety

 

Aside from mystical experiences and benefits like creativity, researchers are in a dash to discover – and prove to regulators – the benefits of magic mushrooms for treating psychological disorders.

In a study of cancer patients published in 2016, those who took a high dose of psilocybin reported increased well-being and optimism, a higher quality of life, and lower depression and anxiety scores. Over 80% of patients continued to experience positive life changes at a six month follow up. Though in this study the patients didn’t receive therapy as a part of the experiment, they did talk about their lives beforehand and debrief their experiences afterwards with monitors. These findings have been replicated in other studies.

In a recently published study, 27 non-cancer patients with major depression were treated with psychotherapy and two sessions of psilocybin. Four weeks later, 71% had a 50% or more reduction in their depression scores, and over half of participants were in complete remission.

In another study looking at the effects of psychedelics in non-clinical contexts, users reported being less depressed or suicidal after their trips. An examination of existing data from a national survey also found lifetime psychedelic use to be negatively correlated with psychological distress and suicidal tendencies (though there was a positive correlation for other types of drug use).

 

Magic mushrooms and OCD

 

Mushrooms may also be useful in alleviating OCD. In a small study, OCD symptoms were reduced by at least 25% in 90% of participants (and by more than 50% in 67% of participants). It’s unknown how long these effects might last, as the study only measured symptoms up to 24 hours after ingestion. However in one case study,  a man found his OCD symptoms were greatly alleviated for about three weeks after consuming two grams (a moderate dose) of mushrooms.

Scientists have tested this theory in mice, finding that psilocybin reduces compulsive behavior.

 

Magic mushrooms and PTSD

 

There’s little direct so far research of psilocybin on PTSD, but what we know strongly suggests that magic mushrooms can help people who have been traumatized to heal.

Researchers tend to study effects in mice and rats first, so here we find more data. One study found that mice unlearn fear responses faster when given low doses of psilocybin, suggesting that they’re more easily able to let go of negative memories, or at least, stop being triggered by reminders of them.

A separate study looked at the impact of psilocybin on the connection between the amygdala (the area of the brain that processes fear), the visual cortex (which perceives threats in the environment), and the prefrontal cortex. Hyperconnectivity between the amygdala and visual cortex has been linked to an increase in perceived threats and anxiety, which is characteristic of people with PTSD.

The authors explain:

 

“the amygdala may actually determine the affective meaning of visual percepts by its effects on sensory pathways — an effect which mainly occurs subconsciously and which may be greatly amplified in psychopathological conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression. In this context, increased [amygdala] reactivity may lead to an increased attentional focus on negatively valenced environmental or social stimuli and thus effectively blocks out the processing of positive information.”

 

So, the researchers found that psilocybin reduces the amygdala’s connectivity with the visual cortex in response to threat-related stimuli. Which, theoretically, means that after taking psilocybin, we perceive our environments as less threatening. This could be an important mechanism for resolving PTSD.

Back from mice to men. The Canadian Center for Mental Health Disparities has been doing important work researching the potential of psychedelics to heal racial trauma.

We commonly think about PTSD in terms of extreme, violent experiences like sexual assault or physical abuse. However many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) experience racism throughout their lives in overt or subtle forms. Everything from systemic discrimination to microaggressions and hate crimes, negative experiences based on racism have long-term impacts that may result in PTSD.

The study surveyed BIPOC in the US and Canada who had experienced racial trauma and recently taken psychedelics in non-clinical environments. The study concluded:

 

“Our lab has found that a single positive experience with a psychedelic drug can help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms in Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) whose encounters with racism have had lasting harm.”

 

This is one of the CMHD’s first studies on the subject, however it has many more in the pipeline, so if you’re interested in psychedelics and PTSD, and especially its intersections with racial trauma, watch their page.

Psilocybin also favors positive emotional processing, and this, coupled with its tendency to promote introspection and increase neural plasticity, could help patients form new understandings of their trauma experiences. New insights, emotional breakthroughs, and perceiving the world as less threatening all make psilocybin a likely candidate for the treatment of PTSD.

Anecdotal data support these theories, with more veterans taking matters into their own hands, and reporting dramatic improvements in PTSD symptoms after taking magic mushrooms.

 

Magic mushrooms and addiction

 

Psilocybin has been found to reduce dependency on drugs and alcohol. Studies from the 1950s on the subject are typically discarded by modern science since they don’t employ current methodologies, and limited research has been carried out in the past decade, but it’s promising.

One study of 10 alcohol dependent people showed that they reduced their consumption following four weeks of psychosocial therapy and two psilocybin trips. Number of drinking days fell by 27%, and heavy drinking days fell by 26%.

An experiment with smokers was even more promising. Participants took part in a 15 week course on quitting tobacco and received four weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. Starting at week five, they had three separate psilocybin trips. Six months later, 80% of the subjects were completely abstinent from smoking.

These were pilot studies, so it’s possible further research will discover ways to improve their efficacy as a treatment here.

 

Qualitative research and personal accounts

 

While the explosion in research is quite recent, the quantitative research produced just in the past few years into the uses of psilocybin is daunting. So it was refreshing to see that a group of researchers had taken a qualitative approach to what is ultimately a very subjective experience, using an interpretive phenomenological analysis. Meaning, they focused on how volunteers made sense of their own experiences. Thefindings may offer more insight into what it’s like to trip on psilocybin – as well as why it’s effective in relieving anxiety, depression, and PTSD and addiction – than neurobiological explanations. Here are some excerpts from the study:

 

“General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. 

“Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness… 

“Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience.”

 

Researchers and other officials recommend taking psilocybin under professional supervision and in conjunction with therapy, though the benefits of magic mushrooms are often pronounced in its absence.

Other sources of direct experience can be found in Erowid vaults, going back to the early days of the internet. A recent account describing a four gram trip reads:

 

“I was seeing very interesting visuals on the walls and when I closed my eyes. My thought processes were becoming absolutely ridiculous and indescribable. I couldn’t help but find meaning in absolutely everything, as if my life were some divine narrative…

“I felt myself fading away. Everything sounded as if I was very far away. I was having a hard time understanding anyone because I could not hear them very well. As I began to drift away, I was expanding. I was feeling the ground underneath me, the car, the trees and the mountains in the distance. I had the strangest feeling like my head was blooming or exploding in directions I cannot communicate.

“But one of the most interesting sensations was of being in my friends minds. Not that I could read their thoughts or anything, but I felt as I was swimming around in their heads. It was very peaceful. I felt in communion.”

 

How do magic mushrooms work?

 

Psilocybin acts like serotonin, activating its receptors, specifically binding to 5-HT2A and 5-H2C receptors. However it doesn’t follow the usual serotonergic pathways of our brains. Instead, normal pathways are disrupted, and the psilocybin activates new 5-HT2A/C receptors, forging new pathways, new connections, strengthening synapses, and creating new thoughts. When the psilocybin finally leaves us, our brain remembers some of those new thoughts, which we may experience as profoudn insights.

Psilocybin’s serotonergic stimulation is also supposed to reducethe connectivity of the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is the part of our brain involved in self-referential thought, reflection but also rumination. It’s where we go when we’re thinking about ourselves, and deactivating these pathways when we’re depressed may be a key mechanism for psilocybin’s therapeutic effect.

Finally, when we’re under a lot of stress, depressed, or have PTSD, that stress response over time suppresses, atrophies, or even kills off a lot of our neurons.  Regions of our brain may even be seen begin to shrink as a result, especially the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Serotonergic psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and DMT have been found to directly reverse some of that atrophy by increasing the number of dendritic spines on neurons, and strengthening and creating new synapses. Psychedelics may or may not stimulate the creation of new neurons, but they at least help them grow, and these extra dendritic spines and synapses create more opportunities for diverse thoughts and new connections to be formed. This neural flourishing lasts well beyond the trip, which bodes well for future resilience, learning, decision-making, empathy, and creativity.

Scientists call the increased ability to form new connections “neuroplasticity”, and credit these structural brain changes with the revelations as well as long-lasting benefits that can come from psychedelic therapy. However our subjective, metaphysical experiences feel more than biological; there must be an element of magic. Huxley called it cleansing the doors of perception, while McKenna might say we are awakening to new realities and our own divinity.

 

Effects of magic mushrooms

 

“When we look within ourselves with psilocybin, we discover that we do not have to look outward toward the futile promise of life that circles distant stars in order to still our cosmic loneliness. We should look within; the paths of the heart lead to nearby universes full of life and affection for humanity.”

― Terence McKenna

During the trip itself, magic mushrooms can induce euphoria, divergent thought patterns, feelings of empathy, insights and realizations, and minor hallucinations in small to moderate doses. In larger doses they can induce spiritual experiences, ego dissolution and intense hallucinations.

In moderate and large doses there’s often an element of anxiety at some point in the trip as your mind is immersed in another world and may have doubts or irrational worries. This is normal, and one should just let it pass. However by preparing for the trip you can minimize the anxiety, as well as the possibility of it spiralling out of control and having a “bad trip”.

After the trip, people tend to feel happier, more empathetic, and more spiritual, with a greater sense of purpose and reduced anxiety.

The extent of the benefit will be dependent on the dose, as well as your state of mind and how much you’ve prepared, or what’s generally referred to as “set and setting”. Here, set refers to the individual person’s personality and mood, and setting is the environment. Are you well-slept? Is it outdoors or indoors?  Is it quiet or noisy? What kind of music is playing? Are the other people friendly?  All of these factors and more can play a role in how your mind responds to psilocybin, and the quality of your trip.

 

 

DIY psilocybin therapy

 

With more knowledge and mainstream acceptance of their impacts, but limited availability in a medical context, many are going the DIY route to get the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin. And now that they’ve been decriminalized in Oregon and DC, they’re becoming easier to get your hands on.

Shamans and the medical community alike warn that psilocybin is a medicine, and should be taken for spiritual or therapeutic, rather than recreational purposes. So keep this in mind if you’re intending to trip, and take a leaf from the therapist’s (or shaman’s) notebook by doing mental prep work beforehand. This could be journaling, meditation, getting out in nature, or talking to a good friend or therapist about any issues you want to resolve, as well as what you want to get out of the trip.

The environment in which you take magic mushrooms has a major effect on a trip, negative surroundings can lead to bad experiences, so it’s best to take them in a place and with people you’re comfortable with.

People who intend to use psychedelics therapeutically should be aware of the possibility of falling back into old habits and patterns, which are more easily surmountable in therapeutic contexts. The insights arrived at while tripping are easily forgotten over time. Without corresponding long-term changes in our habits, relationships, or environment, the benefits of magic mushrooms can fade.

This is why Huxley emphasized meditation. It can only help to begin a meditation or regular yoga practice. And to reiterate, if you’re DIY tripping for spiritual purposes or to heal yourself, it’s advisable to plan your trip in an intentional way. Discuss your intentions abd experiences with a therapist, a friend, or even with yourself by journaling. Remember that a light trip may be less transformative, but if you’ve never tripped before, it’s best to start small and work your way up to a larger dose as you feel more comfortable.

 

Can magic mushrooms be harmful?

 

A review of eight different studies involving psilocybin found no increased risk of adverse psychological effects such as drug abuse or psychosis at follow ups 8 to 16 months later. So basically, they’re not addictive, and even a very bad trip is unlikely to cause long-term harm.

However, they may adversely effect people with a history of psychosis, though there’s no good data on it, since they’re excluded from most studies. It also must be said that those who take large doses unprepared can experience adverse effects in the form of a bad trip. This is why I emphasize preparation, and that high doses are not for the novice.

Physically, magic mushrooms are well tolerated. However, psilocybin is metabolized by the liver, and probably shouldn’t be taken by people with serious liver problems such as cirrhosis. If you have serious health issues, check with a doctor first.

There was a sad case of a young man with bipolar disorder who had heard about magic mushrooms as a treatment for depression, and made a tea of them and injected them into his bloodstream. The mushroom spores grew there, and he almost died. Don’t do this, or anything like this! Magic mushrooms should be ingested orally; if you don’t like the taste, put them in a smoothie.

Another risk is in taking wild mushrooms. Don’t do this unless you’re a mycologist or with a skilled guide. A lot of mushrooms are poisonous, and a mistake could put you in the hospital or worse. And because of the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and hormones, they’re not as common in the American landscape.

 

An emerging magic mushroom market

 

Psychedelics have become a hot new bubble for venture capitalists, who are actively seeding the market. This, combined with amazingly positive outcomes in the research so far, means that many more studies are to come in the next years. Investor dollars, results, and a massive need are driving acceptance from the media and the government.

Historically, magic mushrooms were often consumed in the context of ceremonies and rituals. Today’s counterpart, albeit more individualistic, is therapy, and most psychedelics are being studied in the context of psychotherapy.

The benefits of magic mushrooms are likely strengthened in such a context. Having a skilled professional (or friend, if you’re going the DIY route) dedicated to exploring your experience and personal challenges before, during, and after the experience can only help realize and reinforce its potential benefits.

However what happens when a for profit company tries to administer and monopolize a sacred therapeutic experience?

In 2018, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to Compass Pathways to fast-track FDA approval for psilocbyin therapy with its own patented formulation, and to conduct its own clinical studies. The Usona Institute, a nonprofit, has also received Breakthrough Therapy Designation, and is conducting its own trials. Compass, however, has received a lot of criticism from the psychedelic research community. At first pretending to be a nonprofit, the for-profit company has now received $110 million from private investors including the likes of Peter Thiel, and is aggressively trying to dominate the market for psilocybin.

Magic mushrooms and psilocybin themselves can’t be patented. However Compass is trying to corner the market for psilocybin therapy by controlling the commercial production of psilocybin with its own formulation, COMP 360. In addition to patenting a method for synthesizing psilocybin, it has also submitted a patent application for using psilocybin in psychotherapy,  though this is unlikely to be approved. Compass is currently conducting phase 3 clinical trials, and recruiting and training therapists.

It’s not just Compass; hundreds of companies have been formed over the past few years to try and profit from the psychedelic renaissance. Many are doing research to find new drugs. I’m concerned that patenting psychedelics, variants, or the way that they’re used could lead to the development of a drug that more closely resembles soma than moksha.

Once approved by the FDA, psilocybin therapy could be costly – especially if it’s monopolized by Compass Pathways. As it stands, wealthier people can already access psychedelics in therapeutic contexts through expensive retreat programs in places like Amsterdam or Jamaica where psilocybin is legal.

Compass’s methods aren’t rocket science, however. The therapy consists of three sessions : a “getting to know you session”, a session in which you trip wearing an eye mask and listening to classical music and the therapist is there to reassure you, and a debriefing session where you discuss what you learned. Along with a mental health professional, you could easily replicate this or devise a better set, setting, or process.

There’s something very disconcerting about corporate therapy and tripping, like mixing the profane and the sacred. How strange that where capitalism is our religion, we go to the pharmaceutical companies or corporate clinics for healing, worship, and redemption.

While psychedelics can make the mundane appear sacred, can they transform the profane?

 

 


“Our normal word-conditioned consciousness creates a universe of sharp distinctions, black and white, this and that, me and you and it. In the mystical consciousness of being at one with infinite Oneness, there is a reconciliation of opposites… there is an immediate experience of our solidarity with all being and a kind of organic conviction that in spite of the inscrutabilities of fate, in spite of our own dark stupidities and deliberate malevolence, yes, in spite of all that is so manifestly wrong with the world, it is yet, in some profound, paradoxical and entirely inexpressible way. All Right. For normal waking consciousness, the phrase, ‘God is Love,’ is no more than a piece of wishful positive thinking. For the mystical consciousness, it is a self-evident truth.”

– Aldous Huxley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because of the artists, who are self-selected, for being able to journey into the Other, if the artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”

― Terence McKenna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our culture, self-toxified by the poisonous by-products of technology and egocentric ideology, is the unhappy inheritor of the dominator attitude that alteration of consciousness by the use of plants or substances is somehow wrong, onanistic, and perversely antisocial. I will argue that suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrongheaded assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style.”

― Terence McKenna