magnesium for depression, anxiety, and stress

 

How magnesium relieves anxiety, depression, and stress

Magnesium is fundamental to many processes in our bodies; it plays a role in over 300 biochemical reactions necessary for our physical homeostasis. It supports the cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive system. It prevents the hyperexcitability of neurons that results in anxiety, stress, and cell death. For this reason it’s also being investigated as a preventative treatment for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Magnesium also reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the frequency of migraines.

Magnesium deficiency is extremely common

magnesium for depression, anxiety, and stress

Most people aren’t getting enough magnesium – it’s estimated that about 68% of all adults in the US are deficient in this essential mineral.

Why? Most processed foods are stripped of their natural magnesium. For instance, refined flour contains only 16% of the magnesium found in whole wheat. So much pasta, so little Mg! 

Water treatment facilities also tend to filter magnesium out of our drinking water. Poor diet is strongly linked to magnesium deficiency, and other factors like excessive alcohol intake and stress can also deprive our bodies of much needed magnesium.

Magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety, depression, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, muscle cramps, diabetes… the list goes on.

Several studies have established magnesium’s efficacy in treating depression and anxiety. In one recent study, daily use of magnesium significantly reduced symptoms of depression  and anxiety within just two weeks.

Magnesium deficiency, stress, and neural atrophy

So how does magnesium work? Because magnesium is so vital to so many processes, its role in relieving depression is multi-faceted. However one way is by regulating the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary adrenocortical) axis – our body’s main stress response system, which controls the secretion of our stress hormones. 

A second way magnesium may act to curb anxiety is by preventing glutamate from excessively binding to NMDA receptors. Glutamate is the main excitatory neuro-transmitter in our brains, and anxiety provokes an overactivation of NMDA receptors. Over time, these neural pathways become reinforced, and chronic overactivation of these receptors causes the death or atrophy of complementary neurons, resulting in neurological dysfunction. Long term, the cell death caused by NMDA overactivation causes a loss of neuroplasticity, and even  brain damage.

Don’t freak out – you can reverse this process and grow new brain cells. However, this neuronal death and atrophy causes key areas of the brain to shrink, a core physiological feature of depression. The hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, is 10-20% smaller in patients with stress-related disorders like major depression and PTSD.

Have you ever heard it said that a depressed person has “stopped growing”? Well, this may be more than figurative – the hippocampus is also where all new neurons are born (perhaps thousands a day in healthy adults), so damage to neurons in the hippocampus may also limit our ability to form new neurons. If our ability to create new brain cells is stunted, it can affect our entire brain, literally limiting our ability to learn and grow. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, cognition, creativity, self-expression, and social behavior, also tends to be smaller in people suffering from depression.

Magnesium may also support serotonin production, and increase the availability of GABA, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that relaxes us.

New neurons, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity

In short, magnesium deficiency can lead to excess anxiety and stress, which can in turn cause neurons and areas of the brain to atrophy, a central feature of depression. The good news is that you can reverse a lot of this damage by stimulating the growth of new neurons, which is called neurogenesis. Since all new neurons are born in the hippocampus, learning is a great way to stimulate neurogenesis. Exercise is also a classic way. Sex is said to help, too, by way of relieving stress.

Another experimental class of treatments, psychedelics, increases neuroplasticity and may even stimulate neurogenesis. Psychedelics reverse depression-related neuronal atrophy by stimulating the growth of dendritic spines and synapses in existing neurons. These are the very ends of neurons, where they communicate with other neurons. More and stronger synapses mean new connections and neural pathways, which translates to new ideas, thoughts, creativity, and growth.

Your brain will also need magnesium in order to create nucleic acids, which are essential parts of neurons and all living cells.

What type of magnesium should I take?

As with many supplements, absorption is a factor. Magnesium comes in many forms. Look for supplements with magnesium glycinate or magnesium chloride, which are thought to be among the most easily absorbed by the body.

Of course, mental health is complex; biological mechanisms interact with social,  environmental, and historical factors. However nourishing your mind and body by getting enough magnesium is an excellent place to start to feel better. 

 

Before Dawn by Bisbiswas

 

The ketamine craze: Ketamine infusion therapy for depression & PTSD

Ketamine clinics for depression and PTSD are popping up like wildflowers, but is it a poison or a cure?

 

ketamine for depression, PTSD, anxiety

 

Ketamine’s first recorded synthesis was back in 1956. It was approved for use in the US on humans and animals in 1970, and it became the most commonly administered battlefield anaesthetic during the Vietnam War. However during the 1980s it emerged on the street and became popular within the rave party and gay scene as a drug to get high on.

Though not widely used recreationally in the US, over the past decade ketamine has become UK teenagers’ “drug of choice”. Maybe they’re self-medicating… but the consequences of ketamine addiction can be serious. We’ll get to the recreational, or dark side, of ketamine later.

2020 saw ketamine hit the headlines once more as a successful treatment within clinics for patients suffering from treatment resistant depression. As with classic psychedelics like psilocybin, ketamine infusion therapy has shown promise as a treatment for depression, PTSD, OCD, anxiety, and even addiction.

 

Ketamine poison or remedyMoonlight Circus by BisBiswas

 

Despite its risk of abuse, because of its anaesthetic and pain-relieving applications, ketamine is a Schedule 3 substance in the US, as opposed to Schedule 1 like magic mushrooms, LSD, or MDMA. That makes it a lot easier to conduct research on ketamine and use it in clinical trials, and means that doctors can use it off label.

It’s because ketamine has approved medical applications that ketamine clinics are now able to proliferate across the US (and now also the UK), and news of it as a panacea is lighting up the marquees. The irony, of course, is that ketamine is much more dangerous than psilocybin, and probably less effective – or at least, its effects are shorter lived.

Ketamine clinics, like the company MindBloom, offer ketamine injections or infusion therapy, sometimes in conjunction with psychotherapy, Since the treatment is experimental and not approved by the FDA, it’s not covered by insurance – though some clinics are making ketamine infusion therapy as affordable as a visit to the psychiatrist.

 

How does ketamine work?

Ketamine is an NMDA receptor antagonist. NMDA receptors are activated by glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain.

Overactivation or “excitability” of NMDA receptors is implicated in chronic stress and anxiety, and eventually leads to neural atrophy, a loss of neural plasticity, and depression.

As an NMDA antagonist, ketamine temporarily blocks glutamate from binding with NMDA receptors, preventing activation of downstream neurons (which we might experience as negative thoughts if we’re depressed). Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain, and it’s especially involved in learning and memory and the formation of long-term neural pathways (known as long-term potentiation, or LTP).

The prevailing theory is that a series of chemical processes are then set off that increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key protein for the growth of neurons, which is stunted when NMDA receptors are overactivated.

Blocking NMDA receptors also causes glutamate to activate more AMPA receptors, the other main glutamatergic receptor. In situations of chronic stress, AMPA receptors are underactive and there are fewer of them at synapses. However AMPA receptors are key to synaptic plasticity; they stimulate short-term and long-term potentiation, or the creation of new neural pathways.

ketamine and depression
A healthy synapse versus one under chronic stress, as in when NMDA receptors are overactivated

Neuroscientists believe ketamine’s antidepressant effect to be achieved by increasing the number of AMPA receptors and by stimulating BDNF in the brain, fostering the growth of new neurons and dendrites, and strengthening synapses. All of this increases neuroplasticity, or how healthy and flexible our brains are, which is thought to play a key role in the antidepressant effects of all psychedelics. 

This is a general overview; the exact mechanism by which ketamine relieves depression is still being investigated.

A recent study found that the antidepressant effects of ketamine may be through one of its metabolites, hydroxynorketamine.

Serotonin may also play a role. A 2020 study found that ketamine treatment increased binding with serotonin 1B receptors in the hippocampus of depressed patients.

 

What is ketamine like?

The ketamine high isn’t exactly like that of classic psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin. It’s dissociative, so it can make you feel disconnected from your body as well as your regular thoughts and emotions. Users report feeling like they’re floating, with changes in perception and dreamlike states.

Mentally it’s not for the faint hearted; it’s a powerful tranquilizer and the trip is intense, introspective and psychedelic. As a street drug, ketamine can be quite moreish on a low dose so it’s very easy to go over on the second line… and then you may end up in a “K-hole”, coming around a few hours later with no memory of what happened.

The comedown is spacy and empty, leaving you feeling a bit down.

 

Ketamine infusion therapy for depression

We’ve known for at least 20 years that ketamine relieves depression. Since then, several studies have found ketamine infusion therapy to reduce depressive symptoms in patients with treatment resistant depression, meaning, those who have failed to respond to traditional antidepressants. 

Ketamine is fast acting, known to relieve depression almost instantaneously. It’s also promising for those at risk of suicide; ketamine has been found to significantly lower suicide ideation.

Most patients experience near total relief of their depressive symptoms within one to 24 hours of their treatment. On the down side, the antidepressant effects of ketamine typically wear off within one month, so it’s not a cure.

It seems that as a long-term treatment, patients need to receive injections weekly or monthly, though by combining ketamine infusions with psychotherapy their effects may last longer.

 

Ketamine infusion therapy for PTSD

People who have been through a traumatic event, or repeated or chronic events, can develop PTSD or chronic C-PTSD. Common symptoms include depression, flashbacks, anxiety or panic, and nightmares. However PTSD can also manifest in difficulty concentrating, cognitive impairments, loss of interest and detachment, emotional dysregulation, and reckless behavior. 

Since these symptoms are also common in those suffering from neural lesions or traumatic brain injury, a group of researchers theorized that PTSD may also be caused by a lack of synaptic connectivity.

They write:

“It is well established that chronic stress causes neural atrophy and decreases the number of synapses within cortical and limbic circuits implicated in the regulation of mood, cognition, and behavior. Glutamate synapses are the dominant form of synaptic connectivity in these circuits.”

So they hypothesized that ketamine could treat PTSD based on how it is thought to treat depression – building the strength of synapses by increasing BDNF, the number of AMPA receptors, and the number and strength of dendrites, the branches at the receiving ends of neurons.

Now that theory is being tested. A study just published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that a two-week course of six ketamine infusions significantly improved symptoms of PTSD, and the effects lasted for nearly a month. Research on humans is still limited, but at least one other study has found similar results. More research has been done on rats, suggesting that ketamine can help us forget bad memories.

 

Ketamine and OCD

Since glutamate is thought to play a central role in the obsessive thought patterns which plague OCD, ketamine has been investigated as a possible treatment. A 2013 study found that treatment with ketamine had rapid and stable results, reducing symptoms of OCD in half of participants for at least one week.

 

Ketamine and addiction

Ketamine can itself be addictive, so it seems an unlikely candidate to cure addiction. However one study in 2019 found that one ketamine treatment plus five weeks of mindfulness-based therapy resolved cocaine addiction in 44% of participants for at least six months, while all of those who only received the therapy (the control group) continued using.

 

Ketamine & esketamine for anxiety

Though the effects aren’t as pronounced as they are for depression, a few studies have also found ketamine to be somewhat effective in treating anxiety. In one study, ketamine was found to reduce social anxiety but not generalized anxiety compared to placebo.

A couple of studies found that esketamine significantly reduces both depression and anxiety in chronically ill patients.

Generally ketamine is a sedative, however another study found that experiencing anxiety during ketamine infusions for depression was associated with poor outcomes. So the first word of advice to those seeking ketamine treatment for depression might be: just relax.

A second word of advice? If you’re having ketamine treatment, take magnesium supplements along with it. Ketamine and magnesium are thought to work in similar ways to treat depression, and a recent study found that supplementation with magnesium enhances ketamine’s antidepressant effects.

 

A look at recreational ketamine use across the pond (or, the case against ketamine)

 

ketamine craze: cure or poison?

 

In England, where ketamine is widely used as a party drug, people are seeing the dark side of ketamine, as young men in their 20s are starting to have bladder problems. This is because ketamine breaks down the wall of your bladder over time.

If you develop a habit and regularly take a lot of street ketamine, you will fairly soon start running into some serious problems, as tolerance grows rapidly. In the beginning it’s fairly cheap, selling at around 20 pound a gram in the UK — that’s enough to get you well and truly munted for up to five hours. And if you start using at the levels given to sedate animals like elephants and horses, your problems will deepen as your usage goes up and tolerance builds.

The obvious drawbacks are the onset of adverse physical effects after heavy or long-term use of ketamine. These are worse than most other street drugs; primarily the rapid destruction of your bladder and urinary function. It’s sad to see teenagers that have been caning k for a few years simply pissing their pants and having seriously painful stomach cramps.

People’s experiences are individual and specific, so whilst Jill who had a little dabble here and there for a few years managed to walk away unscathed and actually benefited from her experiences, Jack spent way too much money and is having a tough time trying to stay off it whilst suffering psychosis, kidney, and bladder problems. You can never know another person’s capacity to say no or have an understanding of how other drugs, medications, and personal traumas are affecting another person’s ability to make positive decisions.

Other associated problems may include scenarios such as where a person on ketamine walks into a busy road oblivious to their surroundings. Unfortunately it is also used by rapists, gay and heterosexual. Finally, it is illegal in most jurisdictions, so you could do hard time if caught dealing or importing–situations many addicts fall into whatever drug they are on to either fund usage or settle mounting drug debts.

An alcoholic who drinks hard liquor morning noon and night could develop cirrhosis of the liver, slurred speech, and a switchy personality, and whilst some may quietly destroy themselves others may be easily manipulated into violence and vicious cycles of low self-esteem, prison, and toxic relationships.

The recent studies have found that ketamine infusion therapy can immediately alleviate a person’s suffering who is suicidal, however the studies also show that after a period of two weeks the person is likely to be back in the same state of depression, so there is no long term gain.

Popular street drugs are popular because they give you a rush or cause an intoxicating effect, and a good experience will give you confidence to try it again. I suppose what I’m hinting at is that making a career out of ketamine will end up doing you serious harm physically and emotionally. While a short course may have benefits, it comes with no recommendations from my end.

 

Es/ketamine: don’t try this at home

There you have it, folks. While some psychedelic drugs may be safe to experiment with yourself for therapeutic purposes, ketamine is not one of them. Ketamine infusion therapy as an occasional treatment in a clinic may be safe, but it’s definitely one of those “Don’t try this at home” drugs.

And as for esketamine: since ketamine itself can’t be patented, pharmaceutical companies had to slightly change it in order to profit from ketamine therapy. Thus, esketamine is basically just a patented version of ketamine, though it’s said to be a bit weaker. And since most studies of ketamine have been by infusion, and since it’s slightly different chemically, it may be less effective in treating depression. And did we mention that ketamine’s addictive? Yeah, don’t get prescription ketamine.

 

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.

 

 

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