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Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy

Unlock healing potentials with our guide to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Explore benefits, risks, and a path to transformative experiences.

By Harriet Murray on Jun 16, 2024.

Fact Checked by Ericka Pingol.

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Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy

An introduction to Psychedelic Assisted Therapy

Psychedelic-assisted therapy represents a groundbreaking approach to mental health treatment, embracing the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances in a controlled and supportive environment. Unlike conventional therapeutic methods, this approach integrates the careful use of psychedelics, such as psilocybin, MDMA, or LSD, into a therapeutic setting to facilitate profound introspection and emotional healing.

Central to psychedelic-assisted therapy is the concept of set and setting – the mindset of the individual and the environment in which the therapy takes place. These factors significantly influence the therapeutic experience, emphasizing the importance of a comfortable, safe, and supportive setting for the individual undergoing the psychedelic psychotherapy journey.

The use of psychedelics is not a standalone intervention but rather a catalyst for a deepened therapeutic process. Trained therapists guide individuals through their psychedelic experiences, helping them navigate the often intense and introspective states induced by these substances. This guided approach allows patients to explore their subconscious, confront unresolved trauma, and gain new perspectives on their emotions and life circumstances.

Research suggests that psychedelic-assisted therapy can be particularly effective for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and addiction (The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, 2023). Psychedelics appear to act on the brain's serotonin receptors, influencing mood, cognition, and perception. The altered state of consciousness induced by these substances can lead to profound insights, emotional breakthroughs, and a reevaluation of one's life narrative.

Importantly, psychedelic-assisted therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each session is tailored to the individual's unique needs, and therapists carefully screen and prepare participants to ensure psychological stability and readiness for the experience. Integration sessions, which follow the psychedelic experience, play a crucial role in helping individuals process and make sense of their insights, translating them into meaningful changes in their daily lives.

While the resurgence of interest in psychedelic therapy shows promise, it also raises ethical, legal, and safety considerations. Rigorous research, conducted in randomized clinical trial settings, is essential to establish evidence-based protocols and safety guidelines. Additionally, there is a need for ongoing dialogue to address ethical concerns and establish regulatory frameworks that balance innovation with patient safety.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy holds potential as a transformative approach to mental health treatment. It offers a unique opportunity for individuals to explore their inner worlds, confront past traumas, and foster personal growth under the guidance of trained professionals. As research advances, psychedelic-assisted therapy may become a valuable addition to the therapeutic landscape, providing a new avenue for healing and self-discovery.

How does psychedelic assisted therapy work?

Psychedelic-assisted therapy involves the careful and supervised use of psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin, MDMA, or LSD, as a catalyst for therapeutic processes. This form of therapy is conducted in a controlled and supportive environment, often with trained therapists guiding the individual through their psychedelic experience. Here's an overview of how psychedelic-assisted therapy typically works:

Screening and preparation

  • Individuals undergo thorough screening by trained professionals to assess their mental health, medical history, and suitability for psychedelic therapy.
  • Preparatory sessions help individuals understand the potential effects of psychedelics, set intentions for the experience, and address any concerns or fears.


  • The therapeutic setting is crucial and carefully designed to be safe, comfortable, and conducive to introspection. This may include dim lighting, comfortable furnishings, and calming elements to create a supportive environment.

Administration of psychedelics

  • Psychedelic substances are administered in a controlled manner, often through ingestion as a pill or capsule. Dosages are carefully calibrated based on the individual's weight, previous experiences, and therapeutic goals.

Guided experience

  • Trained therapists provide ongoing support and guidance throughout the psychedelic experience. This may involve verbal interaction, playing calming music, or facilitating activities aimed at promoting introspection.

Exploration and introspection

  • Individuals enter an altered state of consciousness characterized by heightened introspection, emotional release, and altered perceptions. This state allows for the exploration of subconscious thoughts, emotions, and memories.

Processing emotions and insights

  • The psychedelic experience often leads to profound emotional and cognitive insights. Therapists help individuals process these experiences during the session or in subsequent integration sessions.

Integration sessions

  • Post-session integration is a critical component of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Therapists work with individuals to integrate the insights gained during the psychedelic experience into their daily lives. This helps translate transformative experiences into sustainable changes.

Follow-up and support

  • Ongoing therapeutic support is provided to address any lingering effects, emotional processing, and to reinforce positive changes.
  • Therapists remain engaged with individuals in the days, weeks, and months following the psychedelic experience to monitor progress and provide additional support.

Holistic approach

  • Psychedelic-assisted therapy takes a holistic approach, addressing not only specific symptoms but also exploring the individual's overall well-being, personal growth, and life narrative.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted therapy relies on a combination of the pharmacological effects of the substances and the therapeutic relationship between the individual and the trained therapists. This approach is currently being studied in clinical trials for various mental health conditions, showing promise as a potentially transformative therapeutic tool. However, it is crucial to conduct these therapies in a legal, ethical, and controlled manner to ensure safety and efficacy.

What conditions does this form of therapy treat?

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is being studied for its potential efficacy in treating various mental health conditions. While research is ongoing, preliminary studies and clinical trials suggest that psychedelic-assisted therapy may be beneficial for the following conditions:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

There is growing evidence from the likes of Mohamed et al. (2022) that psychedelic-assisted therapy, particularly using substances like MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), may help individuals with PTSD by facilitating the processing of traumatic memories and reducing associated symptoms.


Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in certain mushrooms, has shown promise in treating depression (Pearson et al., 2022). Studies indicate that a single dose of psilocybin, combined with psychotherapy, can lead to significant and sustained reductions in depressive symptoms.

Anxiety disorders

Preliminary research suggests that psychedelic substances, when administered in a therapeutic context, may help alleviate symptoms of various anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (Chao & Horton, 2021).


Psychedelic-assisted therapy is being explored as a potential treatment for substance abuse and use disorders, including alcohol and tobacco dependence (Rieser et al., 2021). Psilocybin and ayahuasca are among the substances under investigation for their potential role in addiction treatment.

Existential distress in terminal illness

Psychedelic therapy has been investigated for its ability to alleviate existential distress, anxiety, and depression in individuals facing life-threatening illnesses. Psilocybin treatment, in particular, has shown promise in improving the quality of life and reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients (Ross et al., 2022).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Some research suggests that psychedelic substances may have therapeutic potential for individuals with treatment-resistant OCD. Psilocybin, in combination with psychotherapy, has been studied for its impact on OCD symptoms (Chao & Horton, 2021).

End-of-life anxiety and depression

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has demonstrated the potential to provide psychological and emotional support for individuals facing the end of life. It can help alleviate anxiety and depression associated with terminal illnesses, fostering a sense of peace and acceptance (Ross et al., 2022).

Major depressive disorder (MDD):

Studies exploring the use of psychedelics, such as psilocybin, suggest that these substances may offer therapeutic benefits for individuals with major depressive disorder, especially those who do not respond well to traditional treatments (Pearson et al., 2022).

Benefits of psychedelic-assisted treatment

Psychedelic-assisted treatment has garnered attention for its potential therapeutic benefits in various mental health conditions. While research is ongoing, preliminary studies and clinical trials suggest several potential benefits associated with this novel form of therapy:

Enhanced emotional processing

Psychedelics may facilitate a deepened exploration of emotions and memories, allowing individuals to process and integrate difficult or traumatic experiences.

Alleviation of treatment-resistant conditions

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown promise in addressing conditions that are often resistant to conventional treatments, such as treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and certain forms of addiction.

Reduction in depressive symptoms

Studies with substances like psilocybin have reported significant and sustained reductions in depressive symptoms, providing a potential breakthrough for individuals with major depressive disorder.

Decreased anxiety levels

Psychedelics, especially in combination with psychotherapy, may lead to a reduction in anxiety symptoms, including those associated with conditions like PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and end-of-life anxiety.

Enhanced creativity and problem-solving

Some research suggests that psychedelics may temporarily enhance cognitive flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving abilities, potentially offering unique insights and perspectives.

Spiritual and existential exploration

Psychedelic experiences often involve a sense of interconnectedness and spiritual or mystical states. This can lead to a greater sense of purpose, meaning, and existential well-being.

Improved mood and well-being

Participants in psychedelic-assisted therapy studies have reported improvements in mood, overall well-being, and a sense of connection with themselves and others.

Long-term positive changes

Studies indicate that the positive effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy may extend beyond the acute experience, leading to enduring changes in personality, outlook on life, and overall mental health.

Enhanced therapeutic alliance

The intense and introspective nature of psychedelic experiences can deepen the therapeutic alliance between the individual and their therapist, fostering trust and communication.

Reduction in substance dependence

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown promise in addressing addiction by promoting insights into maladaptive patterns and enhancing motivation for behavioral change.

Quality of life improvement in terminal illness

For individuals facing terminal illnesses, psychedelic-assisted therapy may provide relief from anxiety, depression, and existential distress, contributing to an improved quality of life in their remaining time.

Positive changes in brain activity

Neuroimaging studies suggest that psychedelics can induce changes in brain activity patterns associated with increased connectivity and flexibility, potentially contributing to therapeutic effects.

Limitations of psychedelic-assisted treatment

While psychedelic-assisted treatment shows promise for various mental health conditions, it is important to acknowledge and consider its limitations and potential challenges. Some notable limitations include:

Safety concerns

Psychedelic substances have potential risks, including adverse reactions, hallucinations, and psychological distress. The safety profile of these substances needs careful consideration, especially in vulnerable populations.

Legal and regulatory challenges

Many psychedelic substances are classified as Schedule I controlled substances, limiting their legal use. Navigating legal and regulatory frameworks poses challenges for research, access, and integration into mainstream mental health care.

Individual variability

Responses to psychedelic substances vary widely among individuals. Factors such as personal history, mental health status, and individual sensitivity can influence the nature and intensity of the experience, leading to unpredictable outcomes.

Psychological vulnerability

Individuals with a history of psychosis or severe mental health conditions may be at greater risk of adverse reactions or exacerbation of symptoms during a psychedelic experience. Screening and careful assessment are essential to identify suitable candidates.

Lack of long-term research

While some studies suggest enduring positive effects, long-term research on the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy is limited. More comprehensive, longitudinal studies are needed to assess the durability of therapeutic outcomes.

Limited standardization

The lack of standardized protocols for psychedelic-assisted therapy poses challenges for consistency and reproducibility across studies. Standardization is crucial for ensuring reliable and comparable results.

Ethical considerations

Ethical concerns arise around issues such as informed consent, the potential for exploitation, and the appropriateness of using powerful substances in a therapeutic context. Ensuring ethical guidelines are followed is essential.

Integration challenges

The integration of psychedelic experiences into daily life can be challenging. Ensuring ongoing therapeutic support and integration sessions is crucial for helping individuals process insights and make meaningful changes.

Limited access and affordability

Accessibility to psychedelic-assisted therapy is currently limited due to legal restrictions and the specialized nature of the treatment. Additionally, the costs associated with supervised therapy sessions may be prohibitive for some individuals.

Public perception and stigma

Widespread social and cultural stigmas associated with psychedelic substances may hinder the acceptance and integration of psychedelic-assisted therapy into mainstream mental health care practices.

Unintended negative outcomes

In some cases, individuals may experience challenging or adverse reactions during a psychedelic session, leading to distress or exacerbation of mental health symptoms. Adequate preparation and therapeutic support are crucial to manage such situations.

Limited understanding of mechanisms

The exact mechanisms through which psychedelics exert their therapeutic effects are not fully understood. This lack of clarity hampers the ability to optimize treatment protocols and predict outcomes reliably.

Navigating these limitations requires a cautious and evidence-based approach. Continued research, development of standardized protocols, and ongoing dialogue within the scientific and medical communities are essential to address these challenges and maximize the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted treatment.

Evidence supporting psychedelic treatment

In various clinical research settings worldwide, there is a renewed focus on exploring the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances for conditions such as addiction, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a hiatus in research from the 1950s to the early 1970s, many psychedelic substances were categorized as "drugs of abuse" without recognized medical value (Chwelos et al., 1959). However, recent controlled clinical studies have been conducted to evaluate the fundamental psychopharmacological properties and therapeutic effectiveness of these substances as complementary elements to existing psychotherapeutic approaches (The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, 2023).

The resurgence of interest in psychedelic therapies and research is closely tied to a paradigm shift that recognizes the significance of factors such as set (psychological expectations), setting (physical environment), and the therapeutic clinician-patient relationship. These elements are considered crucial in facilitating healing experiences and achieving positive outcomes (The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, 2023).

While the public is often familiar with the potential risks of psychedelic drugs, much of this knowledge stems from cases involving individuals using illicit substances in unsupervised, nonmedical contexts. This discussion delves into the emerging research focused on therapeutic applications involving human subjects. It carefully examines both the potential benefits and the conceivable risks associated with utilizing various psychedelic compounds and agents as supplements to psychotherapy or counseling for mental illnesses (Tupper et al., 2015).

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Chao, Y.-S., & Horton, J. (2021). Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders, or Substance Use Disorders. In PubMed. Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health.

Chwelos, N., Blewett, D. B., Smith, C. M., & Hoffer, A. (1959). Use of d-lysergic acid diethylamide in the treatment of alcoholism. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 20, 577–590.

Mohamed, A., Touheed, S., Ahmed, M., Hor, M., & Fatima, S. (2022). The Efficacy of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Managing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A New Frontier? Cureus, 14(10).

Pearson, C., Siegel, J., & Gold, J. A. (2022). Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for depression: Emerging research on a psychedelic compound with a rich history. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 434, 120096.

Rieser, N. M., Herdener, M., & Preller, K. H. (2021). Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy for Substance Use Disorders and Potential Mechanisms of Action. Disruptive Psychopharmacology, 187–211.

Ross, S., Agrawal, M., Griffiths, R. R., Grob, C., Berger, A., & Henningfield, J. E. (2022). Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to treat psychiatric and existential distress in life-threatening medical illnesses and palliative care. Neuropharmacology, 216, 109174.

The Lancet Regional Health - Europe. (2023). Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: hope and dilemma. The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, 32, 100727–100727.

Tupper, K. W., Wood, E., Yensen, R., & Johnson, M. W. (2015). Psychedelic medicine: a re-emerging therapeutic paradigm. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 187(14), 1054–1059.

Commonly asked questions

Is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy legal?

The legal status varies globally. Some countries allow research under strict conditions, while others classify psychedelics as controlled substances. Check local regulations for accurate information.

Are there risks associated with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy?

While research shows promising results, there are risks, including challenging experiences and potential psychological distress. Proper screening, preparation, and supervision are crucial to minimize risks.

How long do the effects of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy last?

The acute effects of psychedelics typically last a few hours, but the therapeutic benefits may endure long after the session. Follow-up integration sessions help individuals process and apply insights.

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