Can Psychedelic Drugs Treat Anxiety and Depression?

Shortly before his 22nd birthday, Octavian Mihai, then a student at New York University, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the bone marrow and blood. Although a CT scan showed that the disease had spread throughout his body, Mihai’s oncologist was confident the cancer would respond to chemotherapy. The doc was right: After eight months of grueling treatment, the number of cancer cells in Mihai’s blood had been eliminated.

Mihai should have been thrilled. Instead, he was gripped by a suffocating anxiety.

“Intellectually, I understood that the five-year survival rate for stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma patients is about 80 percent,” recalls Mihai, who studied medicine at NYU. “But that also meant that 20 percent of those people died. And the idea that there was always going to be this thing hanging over me, something threatening my existence—it was chewing at me.”

Long a casual imbiber, Mihai doubled down on his drinking in an effort to drown out the anxiety. It worked, to a point. But in the mornings, along with the hangovers, the anxiety flooded back even stronger.

“Eventually I decided I couldn’t take it anymore,” he remembers. His doctor at NYU suggested Xanax, but Mihai declined, suspecting that a benzodiazepine would just temporarily numb him up, like booze. “Well, there is another possibility,” the doctor suggested, “if you’re up for it.”

The doctor’s colleague at NYU Langone Medical Center was preparing a trial of psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—to treat the anxiety and depression that often accompany a cancer diagnosis. There was still room on the roster. Mihai had never done anything stronger than marijuana, but he was desperate.

A few weeks later, Mihai stood in a softly lit room at Langone with two psychotherapists who would guide him through his first psychedelic trip. A metal chalice was produced, a capsule inside. Mihai swallowed. For half an hour, he felt nothing. He excused himself to the bathroom.

He was standing at the mirror when something strange and wonderful happened. “I saw another universe on the other side,” Mihai remembers. “The walls were crooked; absolutely nothing was straight anymore. I wanted to jump through the glass, slide into that other world.”

He walked back into the main room and lay down on the couch. There, in the company of the psychotherapists, and with a blindfold over his eyes and noise-canceling headphones on his ears, Mihai began to trip. Really trip. Like, an I’m-in-the-movie-Inception-level trip.

Bright colors, infinite darkness. The ability to traverse time and space. The type of trip where reality seems to cave in on itself, where you’re convinced you’re finally seeing the world as it actually is: ineffable, generous, harmonic. As a track of tribal, bass-heavy music pulsed through his headphones, Mihai felt, for the first time in memory, perfectly at peace.

“I’d describe it as having my mind permanently opened,” Mihai says. “And the anxiety was gone.”

What Mihai experienced was not novel. Researchers have experimented with the potentially palliative effects of psychedelics since at least the 1940s, when the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann began experimenting with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which he’d synthesized a few years earlier. In the 1950s and ’60s, thousands of patients participated in studies; many saw a decrease in their anxiety and showed improvements in mood after one trip, like Mihai.

But in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, a law that banned LSD and mushrooms and brought the research to a halt.

Psychedelics are again finding favor among scientists. NYU Langone isn’t alone: Teams at institutions as varied as Imperial College London, the University of Alabama, and Johns Hopkins are currently studying them.

Last year, a Brazilian review claimed that ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew that originated with Amazonian tribes, may help curb depression. And the FDA allowed the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to proceed with tests on the ability of MDMA (or ecstasy) to counteract symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“Look at all the states that have legalized medical marijuana,” says Philip Wolfson, M.D., a California psychiatrist and early proponent of psilocybin and MDMA therapy. “There’s this growing sense that mind alteration can be a good thing—helpful, beneficial, even pleasurable. And that prohibition—full stop—isn’t a healthy thing.”

Adding to the momentum is the rising popularity of “microdosing”—the ingestion of tiny amounts of LSD, which advocates suggest can boost creativity and mood.

Less understood is how psychedelics work. They seem to stimulate serotonin receptors in our frontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs basic cognition and memory, says George Greer, M.D., medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, which backed the psilocybin studies at Langone and Johns Hopkins.

Stimulation is the key word: A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that LSD amps up electrical activity and bloodflow in the visual cortex, the brain region that interprets what you see. Other research suggests that LSD lets otherwise separate areas of the mind communicate.

Still, scientists haven’t figured out what’s happening on a molecular level, says Dr. Greer. “We don’t know how many of these healing experiences are biological in nature”—that is, the result of the brain being physically and possibly permanently altered—”or how many are a product of experiential healing, a substance giving a person fresh perspective on his life,” says Dr. Greer. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”

Decades’ worth, he says.

Until then, he and other experts caution against running your own one-man study. For one thing, the aforementioned studies were done with lab-distilled psilocybin or LSD. If you buy something off the street, you’ll not only commit a crime—all the psychedelics in this story are strictly verboten in all 50 states—but also risk taking tainted or impure drugs.

Plus, in some cases, psychedelics exacerbate the very symptoms researchers want to treat. In the Langone study, most patients reported decreases in depressed mood and anxiety, but a few experienced a temporary increase in anxiety. Luckily, they were tripping in the company of psychotherapists who could monitor their mental state.

“Without that clinical support from professionals, those situations can quickly spiral out of control,” Dr. Greer says. “And that can be traumatic in and of itself.”

Until the science is all sorted out and the drugs are legal, it’s safer to do your tripping in the company of a doctor. Or not at all.

Just ask Mihai. Now 25, he lives in Las Vegas and works as a physician assistant. His cancer is still in remission. His anxiety is firmly under control, and he drinks much less than he used to—progress he attributes in large part to his participation in the Langone study.

“Looking back, I’d describe the experience as having my subconscious thrown wide open,” he says. “It was as if I’d finished months and months of therapy, working toward the goal of overcoming these mental blocks—and I got all that in one session.”

For months after the trip, Mihai felt aftereffects—occasionally heightened colors and sounds, a shimmer on the face of reality. It faded eventually.

“But when I’m feeling stressed, I can still go back to that day,” he says. He recalls what he saw, the wisdom attained.

Still, Mihai has no desire to trip again soon. “I think people who want to use it for fun, as a party drug, they’ll have a weak experience,” he says. “It’s so powerful, right? And you’ve got to have a careful attitude toward it. You’ve got to use it the right way, in a guided setting. You’ve got to fear it, respect it. Because that’s when you start to learn.”


Psychedelics appear to work on your brain’s frontal cortex—its HQ for perception, learning, and memory. But simpler things do that too.


Michael Myers

Your brain uses this amino acid to make serotonin, a chemical involved in mood regulation. Tryptophan is famously found in turkey, but sunflower seeds, eggs, and soybeans are also good sources.


Michael Myers

Also an amino acid, this stuff is found in lobster and Brazil nuts. A supplement containing methionine and the enzyme ATP has been shown to be just as effective as prescription-strength antidepressants.


Michael Myers

“Runner’s high,” the euphoria from hard exercise, can be like a psychedelic. Tough workouts may boost the secretion of a neurotransmitter that could reduce your anxiety and increase your pain threshold.


Michael Myers

It stimulates body and mind. Some hormones and neurotransmitters released during sex may have an effect on brain function, researchers believe. Try whispering that in your bedroom voice.


Let’s be clear: No one here is saying you should ingest psychedelic drugs. In fact, if you’re stressed or anxious—or just looking for a good time—there are plenty of healthier options that won’t land you in trouble with the law, or worse. Still, you might as well understand the buffet of options available to the 21st-century mind explorer.


Michael Hoeweler

First synthesized in 1912 by the German conglomerate Merck—the same pharmaceutical company that brought us vaccines for rubella and mumps—MDMA is best known by its street names, ecstasy or Molly.

MDMA brings on a long-lasting feeling of intense euphoria, higher energy, pleasant body sensations, and an increase in empathy.

Although you’ll temporarily view the world through rose-colored glasses, not all the effects of MDMA are quite so rosy. This stimulant can also cause mild hallucinations (not to mention, if your trip is bad, dizziness, nausea, and high blood pressure). Seizures, dangerously high body temperatures, kidney failure, and death can result.


Michael Hoeweler

It was whipped up in 1938 in the laboratory of pioneering Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who accidentally dosed himself. He was soon tripping his balls off. Millions of people have followed suit.

Of his first trip, Hofmann wrote, “I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures.” Users may hallucinate and have out-of- body experiences. This drug also makes people feel closer, more open, and more trusting toward others.

Not all have enjoyed themselves: Acid, famously, can induce paranoia in users, and in very bad circumstances, full-on drug-induced psychosis. It can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature to dangerous levels.


Michael Hoeweler

Evidence exists that humans have been enjoying the active ingredient in magic mushrooms for millennia—a 6,000-year-old cave painting in Spain, for example, appears to depict a row of a native, hallucinogenic Psilocybe hispanica.

The effects of acid and mushrooms on the brain aren’t so different from each other, although mushrooms are believed to provide a gentler, more manageable trip. A U.K. study compared psilocybin to MDMA and found the former induces “more profound changes in consciousness.”

Adverse physical responses can include vomiting and diarrhea, not to mention a serious case of the sweats.


Michael Hoeweler

Scientists have traced the use of peyote, found in the North American spineless cactus Lophophora williamsii, to at least 1000 B.C. in what is now the United States, putting peyote alongside mushrooms on the list of the oldest known recreational drugs on the planet.

Advocates claim that this hallucinogen can precipitate profound visions and, with regular use, an unparalleled understanding of the world: past, present, and future.

Unfortunately, in worst-case scenarios, it has led to psychotic breaks. Research also suggests that along with hallucinations, peyote can cause an increased heart rate, and agitation. Rarely, users have suffered from vomiting so severe it tore the lining of their esophagus.


Michael Hoeweler

According to the geographer Manuel Villavicencio, indigenous people of Ecuador used this leafy brew to help them guess, predict, and answer the universe’s difficult questions. He imbibed the “magic drink” with them in the mid-1800s. Today, ayahuasca is beloved by celebrities and tech titans.

Ayahuasca has been described as life-changing and reality-imploding. In one study, tourists who tried it in Peru said it helped them understand themselves and others better.

The drug is supposed to be enjoyed with a trained shaman. It shares side effects—nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, pupil dilation—with many other psychedelics.


Michael Hoeweler

A cousin of sorts to ayahuasca, ibo-gaine is derived from the root bark of the African shrub Tabernanthe iboga. Unlike ayahuasca, it is typically chewed or swallowed with water. Tribespeople in Africa have historically used it in religious ceremonies. In the West, it’s the new psychedelic on the block—not only illegal but relatively untested compared to, say, LSD.

Besides its hallucinogenic effects, some suggest that ibogaine could help with treatment of various addictions.

There’s also evidence, as a recent paper puts it, that the substance can cause “life-threatening complications and sudden death.” Not cool. It’s particularly dangerous for people with heart problems.

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