Increase Psychological Flexibility and Thereby Relieve Anxiety and Depression with Psychedelic Drugs
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“psilocybin may be effective in the much wider population of patients who suffer from major depression than previously appreciated. The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” – Alan Davis
Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. People find these experiences very pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. But only very recently have these effects of psychedelic substances come under rigorous scientific scrutiny.
When studied in the laboratory under double blind conditions psychedelic substances have been shown to “reliably occasion deeply personally meaningful and often spiritually significant experiences (e.g. mystical-type experiences).” Psychedelic substances have also been shown to improve clinical depression. The case seems clear, but it’s important to look at the mechanism by which psychedelic substances improve depression.
In today’s Research News article “Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between acute psychedelic effects and subjective decreases in depression and anxiety.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7451132/ ) Davis and colleagues recruited adults who have had an experience with a single psychedelic drug. LSD was used by 42% of the respondents and psilocybin was used by 38%. The respondents completed a questionnaire measuring the drug used, when and how much; mystical experiences, acute insight, anxiety, depression, stress, and psychological flexibility.
They found that the greater the level of mystical experiences the greater the levels of acute insights and psychological flexibility. They also found that the greater the level of levels of acute insights and psychological flexibility the greater the decrease in anxiety and depression. A path analysis revealed that the effects of mystical experiences and acute insights on anxiety and depression were indirect by way of psychological flexibility. They increased psychological flexibility which reduced anxiety and depression.
These are interesting results but caution must be exercised in reaching conclusions as there was no control condition and the results are completely correlational and based upon subjective recall by the individuals. In addition, the participants volunteered by responding to recruitment materials and those who respond are likely those that benefited from the psychedelic experiences.
Regardless, the results replicate previous findings that psychedelic drugs increase mystical experiences and acute insights and these are associated with improved mental health. But the results suggest that these effects are completely mediated by increased psychological flexibility. In other words, mystical experiences and acute insights increase flexibility which improves anxiety and depression. “Psychological flexibility is described as an essential set of processes that help people manage stressors and engage in adaptive behaviors that promote values-driven action.” Hence, this flexibility allows the individual to adaptively respond to events in the environment rather than internalizing them producing anxiety and depression. Psychedelic drugs appear to enhance this flexibility and thereby improve mental health.
So, increase psychological flexibility and thereby relieve anxiety and depression with psychedelic drugs.
“The idea behind psychedelic therapy is that the receptive state that the drug confers opens the door to fresh ideas about how to think about the past and future, which the therapist can reinforce.” – Paul Tullis
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Davis, A. K., Barrett, F. S., & Griffiths, R. R. (2020). Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between acute psychedelic effects and subjective decreases in depression and anxiety. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 15, 39–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2019.11.004
Prior research has shown that acute subjective psychedelic effects are associated with both spontaneous and intended changes in depression and anxiety. Psychedelics are also theorized to produce increases in psychological flexibility, which could explain decreases in depression and anxiety following a psychedelic experience. Therefore, the present cross-sectional survey study sought to examine whether psychological flexibility mediated the relationship between acute psychedelic experiences and spontaneous or intended changes in depression and anxiety among a large international sample of people who reported having used a psychedelic (n=985; male=71.6%; Caucasian/white=84.1%; Mage=32.2, SD=12.6). A regression analysis showed that acute effects (i.e., mystical and insightful effects) were significantly associated with decreases in depression/anxiety following a psychedelic experience. A path analysis revealed that, while controlling for age and sex, increases in psychological flexibility fully mediated the effect of mystical and insightful experiences on decreases in depression and anxiety following a psychedelic experience. This suggests that psychological flexibility may be an important mediator of the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs. Future prospective experimental studies should examine the effect of psychedelic drug administration on psychological flexibility in order to gain a better understanding of the psychological processes that predict therapeutic effects of psychedelics.
- Acute psychedelic effects are related to changes in depression/anxiety
- Changes in psychological flexibility fully mediate this relationship
- Psychological flexibility should be examined in clinical trials with psychedelics