How to Benefit from Psychedelics Without Even Taking Them
3 ways psychedelics can improve your mental health, without ingesting them.
Posted Jan 20, 2021
To put it mildly, psychedelics are having a moment. Oregon has legalized the medicinal use of mushrooms, and MDMA is in final Phase 3 trials, meaning it could be an FDA-approved prescription treatment by 2023. Psychedelic studies are spreading internationally. The therapeutic and medicinal benefits of psychedelics have been written up in outlets as diverse as Christianity Today, Town & Country, ESPN, Military.com, and AARP. Psychedelic companies are sprouting like mushrooms and their stocks are soaring.
Everybody is feeling the effects of the revolution in psychedelic science. But not everybody can or should participate…chemically. So who are the psychedelic benchwarmers?
Who Shouldn’t Participate
Currently, there are strict exclusion criteria for the pool of applicants in many psychedelic studies: Candidates with schizophrenia, bipolar type I or type II, epilepsy, paranoia, or psychosis are excluded from all psychedelic studies. MDMA studies bar populations with heart issues, hypertension, and liver disease, among others. Sometimes even being related to a person with these conditions is enough to exclude a candidate.
Then there are some classes of people who might consider abstinence as a precautionary measure. Even though psychedelics have been shown to help subjects with substance abuse disorders, certain addicts may understandably want to avoid all inebriants. Then, of course, there are those for whom the timing is not right: children, parents, expectant mothers, and the highly risk-averse. Olympic athletes, astronauts, and government employees who must submit to regular drug tests may want to steer clear. One study suggests that scientists studying psychedelics are perceived as less trustworthy if they’ve admitted to substance use. So perhaps even the scientists creating the exclusion criteria should be excluded; the excludor becomes the excludee.
There are ways, though, that the psychedelic renaissance may actually improve the quality of life of the very people who are unable to take them. I’m not talking about a contact high. I’m also not going to reveal that the psychedelics were inside you the entire time. Here are three ways, psychedelics can improve your mental health without you actually ingesting them.
1. Others Will Take Psychedelics for You
In certain nonwestern medicinal traditions, there is a practice by which a medicine healer would take a medicine on your behalf. Shamans of the Amazonian Shipibo tribe would drink the hallucinogen, Ayahuasca, on behalf of an afflicted member of their community. This type of vicarious shamanic healing reappears in African traditions and Native American communities, among others.
In the individualistic West, mental health is not often perceived as a communal phenomenon. But, as Sartre lamented: “Hell is other people.” There is another wonderful bon mot framing mental health as a public issue: “I go to therapy because other people won’t.” Well, other people will take psychedelics when you can’t. If MDMA can make an octopus want to cuddle, maybe there’s hope that your landlord might be a little more understanding after working through some traumas of her own.
There’s also the matter of cost. By some estimates, MDMA-assisted therapy will save $100 million over 30 years for institutions like the VA. PTSD, addiction, depression, and other mental health issues lead to unemployment, crime, and suicidality. So improving the mental health of society means improving just about every other metric of success.
Then there’s the matter of ripple effects. According to chaos theory, a butterfly can flap its wings and deterministically change the weather on the other side of the world. Perhaps a soldier swallowing an MDMA tablet in Arkansas can cause a girl to graduate high school in Azerbaijan.
2. Psychedelics Have Improved the Science of Mental Health
LSD upended neuroscience as well as just about everything else. LSD, like many psychedelics, works by imitating serotonin. As Michael Pollan writes in How to Change Your Mind, “It was the discovery that LSD affected consciousness at such infinitesimal doses that helped to advance the new field of neurochemistry in the 1950s, leading to the development of the SSRI antidepressants.” Psychedelics advanced a field that produced a class of antidepressant that would save the lives of millions of people who never tried a psychedelic in their life.
Then psychedelics fundamentally changed the scientific understanding of depression once again—this time with ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic that is considered a psychedelic by some. Ketamine is extremely effective in treating depression. But unlike other antidepressants, ketamine primarily affects a neurotransmitter called glutamate, associated with neuron health. What’s odd about that? Well, for years, depression has been construed as a deficit of a different neurotransmitter: serotonin. Ketamine studies suggest that depression may be alleviated for some by strengthening neurons and growing synapses. This may explain why 33% of patients don’t respond to SSRIs. So ketamine is making patients happy as well as researchers.
Psychedelics have given science a body of work as well as an entirely new language to draw from. “Set and setting” have been established as scientifically significant in affecting the outcome of trials. The introduction of concepts like “integration” and “microdosing,” and the “mystical experience questionnaire,” have given researchers different processes by which to administer and evaluate all kinds of mind-altering experiences.
3. Psychedelic Research Has Set a Precedent of Radical Self-Healing
When in 1986, Rick Doblin founded MAPS, a group intent on legalizing medical psychedelics, it appeared to be an insurmountable task. But Doblin had seen these medicines work. Now, 35 years later, he is making good on his promises and rounding the final turn, hurtling toward the legalization of medicinal MDMA.
William James describes a “noetic quality.” It is a mystical state and a state of knowing. It’s an ineffable, unprovable, but indelible conviction in something. Perhaps Doblin was invigorated with a noetic quality in order to set about the sisyphean task of working with unfeeling federal bureaucracies. His tenacity has been a resounding testament to the power of healing: People will go to extraordinary lengths to heal.
It is so easy to gaslight yourself when a viable medicine is inconvenient or embarrassing, or expensive or even illegal. But if anything should be learned from the psychedelic renaissance, it is a steadfast commitment to self-healing. For you, that medicine may not be psychedelics. It might be ecstatic dance or ice baths. It might be ASMR or EMDR. Maybe you haven’t found it yet. But commit to finding it and then, when you’ve found it, commit to it.
Above all else, remember, the most potent psychedelic of all...is you.
Just kidding; it's LSD.