8 Myths and Facts About Psychedelics

Myth 1: Psychedelics Are Highly Addictive

Fact: “Psychedelics do not generally lead to a compulsive pattern of use, which is the hallmark of addiction,” explains Itai Danovitch, MD, a professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Some research, such as a pilot study published in November 2014 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, have shown these drugs may actually have the opposite effect by helping individuals overcome alcohol and nicotine addiction.

“Addiction usually means your body accommodates to a drug. You have cravings, and you’re motivated to seek the drug more and more, and if you stop it, you go through withdrawal,” adds Dr. Rosenbaum. “Psychedelics don’t do this.”

But, even though dependence may not happen for many who try psychedelic therapy, it can become a problem for some, including some who try ketamine therapy, Heifets says. “I think one of the increasingly appreciated issues with ketamine is that a segment of patients who are introduced to ketamine in therapeutic settings will go on to develop abuse, misuse, or overuse patterns outside the bounds of therapy.”

Additionally, experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warn that certain psychedelics, such as LSD, can cause some people to develop a tolerance, meaning users must take higher doses to achieve the same effects. This can be very dangerous given the potentially unpredictable effects of LSD, NIDA experts warn.

Myth 2: There’s Not Much Research on Psychedelics

Fact: The body of research on the potential benefits of psychedelic medicines is large and ever evolving. “Renewed interest in the therapeutic effects of psychedelics spawned a resurgence, and over the last decade, there has been a groundswell of rigorous research demonstrating benefits of specific psychedelic agents for certain mental health conditions,” says Dr. Danovitch.

Scientific research on psychedelics dates back to at least the 1950s, per a review published in May 2019 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

Some notable research efforts:

Myth 3: Psychedelic Therapy Under Clinician Supervision Is Safe for Everyone

Fact: Psychedelic therapy isn’t safe for everyone, even under a clinician’s supervision. People who are pregnant or who have a history of mania, severe heart disease, epilepsy, or psychotic illness like schizophrenia should not pursue psychedelic therapy, according to the Translational Psychedelic Research Program at the University of California in San Francisco.

It’s also important to note that psychedelics can interact with any other medications or drugs you’re taking, which is why it’s important to tell a doctor about any medications or drugs you’re taking before using psychedelics in any form.

Those seeking psychedelic therapy should do so through a licensed therapist, and should get clearance from their doctor before doing so. Recreational use of psychedelics is not the same as psychedelic therapy, and they’re not safe to try on your own without supervision from a medical professional.

Another important note: Even for people who can safely take these treatments, they won’t always work for everyone. “The idea that these are a cure-all or a universal solvent is way overstated,” says Rosenbaum. “We have to moderate our expectations to say that this will definitely be a tool that will help some people, but it’s not the answer to everyone’s problems. So, we need to be still hopeful but temper the hype a little.”

Myth 4: Psychedelics Will Make You Crazy

Fact: Psychedelics induce hallucinations, causing a person to see or sense images that aren’t real while the drug is in their system. But they’re unlikely to continue to produce these effects after a treatment session has ended.

“Intoxication with psychedelics can cause people to feel like they are losing their minds,” says Danovitch. “In most cases, after the psychedelic agent is metabolized or eliminated from the body, the intoxication syndrome resolves, and a clear sense of reality returns.”

That said, the doses used for scientific studies are often different than those used for recreation. Because of this, the effects, such as hallucinations, are often different.

Although it’s rare, these drugs can trigger persistent symptoms of psychosis in people with predisposing risk factors, such as prior history of mental illness, as well as in individuals without a history of mental illness with repeated or one-time use, according to NIDA.

Myth 5: Psychedelics Will Permanently Fry Your Brain

Fact: Psychedelics do change the brain, but not permanently. For instance, an article published in 2017 in the journal Cell suggested that LSD may remain in serotonin receptors in a certain part of the brain for several hours even after the drug is no longer in the bloodstream.

This research suggests that the effects of LSD can therefore also last for many hours after the drug has been cleared from the bloodstream, as previously reported by the National Institutes of Health.

“One of the features of psychedelics is that they open up a window of what’s called neuroplasticity where you see evidence of neurons starting to bud and establish new connections,” says Rosenbaum.

What does that mean? “It’s probably a window of days or maybe hours where you have an enhanced ability to learn or to think about things and change things,” Rosenbaum explains. But those effects are not permanent.

Myth 6: Psychedelics Are Just Party Drugs

Fact: Although they’re frequently used recreationally, psychedelics aren’t likely to provide therapeutic benefits and can be very unsafe if they’re taken in this manner.

When psychedelic medicines are administered in a carefully controlled clinical setting to treat medical conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, patients are given detailed instructions on how to prepare for the experience, says Rosenbaum. During the session, they receive constant supervision and support from trained medical professionals, Rosenbaum adds.

Accompanying psychotherapy, often referred to as integration therapy, is also a key element of a therapeutic psychedelic experience. “The therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs appear to depend on psychotherapy, which helps patients process the experience, develop insights, and pursue meaningful change,” says Danovitch.

Myth 7: Psychedelic Medicines Don’t Have Any Risks

Fact: In a well-monitored environment with meticulously measured doses of psychedelic medicines, serious side effects are rare, says Danovitch.

However, psychedelics are still powerful drugs, and in some cases, NIDA warns, they can cause:

  • Extreme anxiety or paranoia
  • Psychosis, or detachment from reality
  • Fast heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Sleep issues
  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive sweating

“It’s important that we continue to do research to determine when, where, and how these drugs work as therapeutic medications,” says Danovitch. “And we need to understand the potential risks, particularly for adolescents who have increasing access to a wide range of drugs that may affect brain development.”

Myth 8: Psychedelics Are the Endgame for Mental Health Researchers

Fact: As research illustrates, psychedelics are a potentially exciting development in the field of mental health medicine. Still, some scientists like Rosenbaum hope they’re simply a stepping stone to uncovering more significant treatment options.

“For me, the biggest hope for these drugs is that they will lead us to explore a new generation of therapeutics and that the psychedelics we’re using today are the forerunners of treatment, so that we will be able to develop new and better psychiatric medications,” says Rosenbaum.

He adds that some research groups are currently studying whether psychedelic medicines can offer benefits without actually inducing a psychedelic experience. In other words, they’re looking to see if these drugs could provide a therapeutic effect only.

“What we know about psychedelics is just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Danovitch. “There is a lot of pharmaceutical innovation under way to develop new medications that have the benefits of traditional psychedelics while reducing the risks.”

Additional reporting by Christina Vogt.

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