Can Psilocybin Help With Anxiety or Depression?
Psilocybin —the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms— has deep roots in the history of psychedelic medicine. It also holds a major place in current research and clinical trials underway for therapeutic applications.
As psychedelic therapy continues to gain awareness and public adoption, it’s important to understand how psilocybin can be applied to the most common mental health conditions.
Let’s explore how psilocybin can help individuals manage, mitigate, or resolve their anxiety and/or depression and their symptoms.
Psilocybin’s role in psychedelic therapy
Psilocybin has long been considered one of the “classic psychedelics” alongside LSD and DMT. It has decades of clinical research and anecdotal reports attesting to its medicinal potential for a variety of mental health conditions.
It was also one of the first psychedelic compounds to undergo major clinical research in the 1950’s and 60’s, until the widespread ban on these studies in the U.S.
Early results were promising, as are recent results across a variety of conditions including smoking cessation, mental health disorders, end-of-life anxiety, and substance use disorder, among others.
When applied to generalized and persistent anxiety and/or depression, psilocybin is demonstrating its efficacy.
Understanding psilocybin's benefits
Psilocybin’s mechanism-of-action lies within the serotonin system, specifically working as a 5HT2A receptor-agonist.
When taken in safe and supportive circumstances, and alongside a trained and experienced care team, psilocybin reliably produces powerful experiences that are mystical, healing, and personal.
Part of psilocybin’s powerful healing potential can be correlated to the strength of the mystical experience it provides. Mystical and psychedelic experiences induced with psilocybin are a feature, not a bug.
Alongside the phenomenological experiences brought about by psilocybin, psilocybin also has a number of biological and/or neurobiological effects, including:
- Increased neuroplasticity
- Increased synaptic connections in the brain
- Neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons
- Baseline mood elevation
- Release of tension
Given its research history, and ongoing clinical data being released, the question is less about whether psilocybin can help someone with depression or anxiety, and more about how to help individuals get the most out of the experience.
It’s becoming clear that psilocybin can help individuals dealing with depressive conditions. So much so that the FDA has recently granted “Breakthrough Therapy Designation'' for psilocybin Phase 2 clinical trials, helping to push this emerging modality along the regulatory process to bring this to patients as quickly, safely, and effectively as possible.
How psilocybin can help treat anxiety and depression
Aside from its neurobiological benefits, there are a number of specific ways that psilocybin has been demonstrated to help individuals with anxiety and depression.
It surfaces personal insights and creates narrative shifts
One of the remarkable abilities of the psychedelic experience is that it can provide new perspectives on an individual’s life.
This helps them to reframe their current situation, or moments from their past, into a new, more empowering narrative. This narrative shift can provide the necessary motivation or inspiration to take bold action in their lives, or make it more clear what the individual needs to do to return themselves to a state of wholeness.
It is easy to brush off these insights or narratives as unimportant or hyperbolic, but a single, key insight that someone receives within a psychedelic experience can set off a chain of events in their life.
It may lead them out of their existing depressive state and into a state of being that is more aligned with who they are, what they want, and where they see themselves going in the future.
It elevates baseline mood
Following a dosing session with psilocybin, there is often an enduring period where the individual experiences a sustained elevation of their baseline mood.
Imagine moving from a four out of 10 on a happiness scale, to a six as a new baseline. While this may seem small, the example shows an individual moving from a predominantly negative state, into a predominantly positive one.
This momentary reprieve from the living reality of chronic depression or anxiety can provide vital energy and the emotional breathing room necessary to begin taking the steps to change their lives for the better.
It helps to form and keep desired habits
Post-experience windows are also accompanied by increases in neuroplasticity, the flexibility of an individual's mind, which allows for two powerful long-term opportunities: it is easier to begin different habits, and they are more likely to ‘stick’ as they start them.
Whether it's gratitude practice, having difficult conversations, or doing more things they love, these small steps set up new, empowering habits.
This helps individuals better manage their depression and anxiety, and move towards states of happiness and fulfillment in their lives.
It facilitates emotional processing and release
Some may consider anxiety or depression as the ongoing accumulation of emotionally challenging material or experiences.
The more of these stories, experiences, and attitudes someone has, the “heavier” the emotional weight is. Carrying around this emotional weight takes a great toll on those who hang onto it.
Psilocybin provides an opportunity for individuals to release this emotional weight by processing their emotions and their experiences in a more receptive state. As the baggage is lost, individuals feel lighter, more energetic, and happier, developing a more positive outlook on themselves and their futures.
By providing the space and insight for deep emotional processing and cathartic release, psilocybin and psychedelic medicine are well-equipped to help individuals make powerful progress in their journey to overcome anxiety and depression.
It creates transcendent & mystical experiences
A transcendent experience can be out-of-body, distort time and space, or raise a direct confrontation with the ineffable mystery of reality.
These felt experiences are sometimes seen as less significant, strange, or even unhelpful parts of the psychedelic experiences.
However, research has indicated that there appears to be a direct relationship between the strength of a mystical experience and the enduring effects of long-term mood increases in the individual.
Psilocybin experiences —while not always— do reliably induce a psychedelic and mystical experience in individuals. Even if not fundamentally necessary for a healing experience, these transcendent experiences are capable of becoming an asset in helping individuals overcome conditions relating to depression and anxiety, including nihilism, despair, or similar feelings.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but these five core characteristics of the psilocybin psychedelic experience make psilocybin well-suited to be a powerful mechanism in helping individuals overcome and manage their depression and anxiety.
Psilocybin has decades of clinical study, research trials, and anecdotal evidence attesting to its ability to help individuals manage depression and other mental health disorders. While further research and trials are warranted, psilocybin’s recent “Breakthrough Therapy” designation is a strong indicator of its potential as a viable medicine, including psilocybin therapy as a valid modality.
As a classical psychedelic, psilocybin provides the phenomenological and neurobiological benefits that help individuals regain control of their life, and create a better future for themselves.
With several studies underway, and new protocols and practices being developed currently, the future and potential of psilocybin as a legal and accessible psychedelic medicine looks promising.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.