Psychedelics Help Cancer Patients Let Go of Distress

“I felt like I let go of a lot of anger and resentment towards my parents,” one study participant said.
September 6, 2017, 9:00pm
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It was only a few months ago that researchers showed that combining psychotherapy with psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in "magic" mushrooms, could relieve anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer. But many of the effects of psychedelics remain poorly understood, and why patients felt better was an open question.

For a recent paper, some of the same researchers from New York University interviewed patients about their experience of psilocybin-assisted therapy. They described transformed relationships with their loved ones, finding themselves able to let go of resentments and offer forgiveness. The psychedelic experience sparked emotional catharsis for all the participants, and many felt a greater sense of connectedness with the rest of the world. Their experiences, in other words, sound very much like your typical shroom trip.


But the study's authors point out that this may be the first qualitative analysis of patients in psychedelic therapy. Recent research has shown psychedelics may reduce suicide risk, help treat addiction, and even alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder. Quantitative studies that measure treatment effects, the researchers note, are valuable for testing hypotheses, but they don't help us generate hypotheses. In a field that's barely been explored, qualitative accounts can challenge preconceptions and reveal new information. What we need, the paper suggests, is new and more nuanced ways of understanding the subjective psychedelic experience.

To add to that understanding, researchers interviewed 13 adults aged 22 to 69 who participated in a previous NYU study which served as a phase II clinical trial for psilocybin-assisted therapy. They all had anxiety related to a cancer diagnosis at the start of the trial, and received a moderate dose of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy sessions. More than half (54 percent) had never taken psychedelics before. (Another group of people in the study received a placebo, but they weren't included in this follow-up since they didn't have a psychedelic experience.)

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The earlier study showed impressive and enduring benefits, with both anxiety and depression decreasing dramatically. For the qualitative follow-up, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews, asking participants to talk about the before, during, and after of their experience. They didn't specifically ask people about their relationships, but everyone said the treatment resulted in them seeing their loved ones in a new way. Researchers coded and compiled their responses, finding those broad themes of emotional catharsis and improved relationships.

"I felt like I let go of a lot of anger and resentment towards my parents," one participant said. "I mean, I thought I had already done that, but I really hadn't, and I kind of saw them more as, like, these flawed human beings who did the best they could." Another described seeing his daughters in a new light: "Bit by bit, my daughters were turning into these radiant beings, cleansed of all these fears. It was incredibly emotional, because it was something I have, as their father, long known, but it's a very great pain when you see your children being victimized by fears … to see these beautiful beings not realizing their essence."

Others said the treatment helped them shift their priorities. One person said: "We forget what's really important; we get carried away with work and making our money and paying our bills, and this is just not what life is about."

But not everything was sweetness and light. Many participants reported feeling challenged by their experience—nine out of 13 described losing their sense of self. (Another not uncommon occurrence.) They felt disorientingly unmoored from themselves before passing through self-doubt into a greater understanding and acceptance of themselves, a process the researchers suggest may be a necessary part of the experience.

Again, so far, so familiar. But while the study may read like a collection of typical (if affecting) trip reports, understanding how psychedelics work on the individual mind may prove as important as measuring their outward effects. Psychedelic therapy is an emerging field, and studies like this push forward the frontier.

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