How Psychedelics Can Provide Relief From PTSD

Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hurts due to experiencing “unpleasant emotion, intense physical sensations and impulsive and aggressive behaviours”(van der Kolk, 2014). It cannot be dismissed as having simply a “bad day” or something to “get over.” PTSD takes over your life. It turns you into a person you don’t know, into someone you are not proud of being. The unpleasant effects of trauma affect not only veterans, but anyone who has experienced four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences or a “potentially life-threatening traumatic event.” The long-term effects of experiencing trauma can vary greatly, but they may include anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and even psychosis (van der Kolk, 2014; Maté, 2008).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Five (DSM-V) only captures a small number of PTSD symptoms experienced, such as hypervigilance, nightmares, and flashbacks. Beyond this fairly limited definition, the effects of trauma are complex and multifaceted, and can include stomach issues, lack of confidence, concentration issues, and Substance Use Disorders (SUDs). There is no universal experience of living with PTSD, but in a word, you feel paralyzed (van der Kolk, 2014). After your trauma has occurred, your life stops moving forward.

Individuals who have PTSD do not lack moral strength or willpower; they have experienced actual changes in the brain (van der Kolk, 2014). Therefore, the brain’s ability to regulate emotion and self-sooth have been compromised. These two skills are often considered instinctual, but they are actually learned (van der Kolk, 2014; Maté, 2008). It must also be mentioned that not all trauma is caused by the actions of another. Trauma can occur from experiences of illness, poverty, or sudden accidental death of parent(s). Regardless of the cause, the brain’s emotional regulation and self-soothing systems have been hijacked, and it is difficult to regain control.

For those who are suffering from PTSD, there are few effective treatment options available. Most treatment is either pharmacological in nature or uses traditional forms of psychotherapy, such as Exposure Therapy or Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These psychotherapy models are difficult for many to endure, as the memory is too painful to face, and treatment can last for decades (van der Kolk, 2014). Therefore, it is vital to consider how psychedelics might be able to provide another tool for the treatment of not only PTSD, but also depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, among many other conditions. Recent studies evaluating psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAT) using various forms of psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, peyote, MDMA, ibogaine, and ketamine are all showing potential for various mental health conditions.

For those with PTSD, each day that passes without having access to effective treatment is another day of having to endure substantial amounts of physical and emotional pain. Having PTSD prevents one from living the life one had envisioned for themselves, which is something everyone should be entitled to. With PTSD, that vision becomes stuck, and another day is lost to paralysis and effect of the illness, through no fault of the individual.

It is vital that we begin to recognize the urgency of identifying effective and accessible treatments for PTSD and other mental health issues. Based on the current lack of such treatments, this urgency may involve investigating some substances that had been previously deemed as “drugs of abuse” for the last half a century. In the 1950s, the Government of Canada declared that LSD was an effective treatment for alcoholism (Shroder, 2014, p. 35). In addition, when Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, uses the term “higher power” in AA literature, he is actually referring to psychedelics, not God (Pollan, 2017, p.152).

We must continue to investigate psychedelic-assisted therapies to provide improved quality of care to all those who are suffering from the effects of past trauma, rather than continuing to reinforce cultural assumptions and biases. We must break away from the rhetoric that blames those who are ill for the circumstances they find themselves in. Psychedelic medicines can begin to open the Western medical approach to the idea that the body and mind are connected. From there, they can also show that trauma destroys this bond, leads to the breakdown of day-to-day living, shapes your worldview, contributes to chronic physical pain, hypervigilance, nightmares, and flashbacks, along with many more symptoms

Image: Joe Carder

References:

Maté, G. (2008) In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Toronto, ON: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Pollan, M. (2014). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression and transcendence.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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