Can Psilocybin Help Us Face Our Greatest Fears?
By Samuel Douglas, Philosopher and Vice President of the Australian Psychedelic Society
No matter how materially wealthy we might be, the meaning and nature of our existence can leave us with unanswered questions. What is our purpose in life, and how much does that even matter in the face of our mortality?
As well as cutting to the core of what it means to be human, how we feel about these existential beliefs can have a profound impact on our mental well-being. When circumstances force us to confront these challenges, we can experience existential suffering—loss of purpose, anxieties around dying, or regret about the choices we’ve made.
Recent research, and a significant milestone in the clinical application of psilocybin, show that it can help people experiencing these painful and hard-to-treat traumas.
A new groundbreaking study has found that psilocybin-assisted therapy, combined with group therapy, effectively reduces demoralization related to the fear, loss, and guilt that older long-term AIDS survivors can experience.
This comes on the heels of a decision by Canada’s Minister of Health to grant four patients permission to use psilocybin to alleviate the distress and existential anxiety they feel at facing the end of their lives. While there has been ongoing research into psilocybin as part of end-of-life care for some time, this is an important step forward as these are the first legal medical exemptions given in Canada since the 1970s.
A less anxious world?
These advances suggest that a whole world of new mental health approaches could open up to us. That authorities would allow these treatments, even if only in limited circumstances, shows that the shift in attitudes about psychedelics is filtering through to regulators and politicians.
We already have evidence that psilocybin-assisted therapy can be safe and effective for illnesses such as treatment-resistant depression. The fact that it could help alleviate the complex and deep-seated suffering associated with existential anxiety indicates just how versatile a clinical tool it could be.
But psilocybin’s potential might be even more far-reaching. Look at the factors that make up existential anxiety and think about what this could mean on a broader scale. Who hasn’t worried about their mortality? Or that our lives might lack meaning? How about feeling guilty, cut off from other people, or confused about who we are? All of us have felt at least one of these things at some point in our lives (or, if you’re an over-thinker like me, all of them).
How much of this is below the surface of our everyday thoughts? How might it be affecting us, both as individuals, and whole societies? It’s not a huge surprise to learn that money can act as an “existential buffer”. But this only works if you think your self-worth can be measured in dollars, and doesn’t always help us deal with what’s making us unhappy in the first place.
Psychedelics, including psilocybin, seem to help people reduce experiential avoidance, which involves using both thought and action to suppress negative feelings rather than face them. We don’t know how psychedelics could change society if more people used them. Yet it’s interesting to wonder what it would be like if enough of us didn’t need to distract ourselves from our mortality, and instead experienced lives full of connection, purpose, and meaning.
Creating the future we want
Psilocybin therapy has arrived; it is happening right now. But making it accessible for all who would benefit from it will not be without its challenges. We get the most growth and benefit from psychedelics when we, as MAPS founder Rick Doblin says, “do the work” by being mindful of set and setting, and embracing integration.
Opening the door for widespread healing, whether that’s via synthetic psilocybin in a clinic with a psychiatrist, or by taking natural mushrooms in a forest with a trusted sitter, is a similar deal. We’re more likely to get the results we want if we consciously engage with the process.
Being part of this doesn’t have to be radical. It can be as easy as supporting your local psychedelic society, or forwarding a great article about psilocybin to a friend. (And yes, that was a hint.)
Some of us will take these small steps. Some of us will take the challenging paths of bringing psilocybin therapy to the patients who need it most, or working towards the legal reforms necessary to make psychedelics more widely and safely available. All these actions contribute to the changes we want to see in the world.
We can do this.